ABC Alaska News. Aug 4, 2006
It wasn't long after lunch that I heard one of the ER technicians calling my name.
"Jess! Jess! They're going to Hooper Bay and they want you with them!" she said, half-running down the hallway.
"Now?" I asked, setting down the chart I was reviewing.
"Oh yeah," she said. I made my way back to the pharmacy, threw on my snow-boots (the very ones that had earned me the nickname "Anti-Grav," my snow pants, and parka. I caught a cab to the Ptarmigan hangar where the LifeMed planes leave. This time, I beat the paramedics there. The door front door was locked so I went around to the side entrance, which I knew would be left unlocked.
The weather had been hovering in the 30's for some time, making some areas very wet. Thankfully, the snow had insulated the majority of the ice underneath, keeping it frozen. Unfortunately for me, the large metal hangar had been reflecting the sun back on to the snow all morning and as I traversed across the snow, I felt my left boot break through the ice. I looked down in shock, seeing a bluish slurry surrounding my left leg. The temperature of my leg immediately began to change. I pulled my boot out, fighting the suction. I looked up toward the door. I was nearly exactly half way--if I continued, I risked plunging into the water again, perhaps this time much deeper. If I returned the way I'd come, I could easily crack through the ice I knew I'd weakened from walking on it the first time. I knew there was a wooden platform hidden somewhere under the snow just outside the door. The choice was simple--I had to go through this door and there was no turning back. I knew if I took another step I'd plunge into the ice. I made up my mind and took a giant leap for the platform I hoped was there.
I was right. My boots flattened the snow and I heard the "thunk!" of wood underneath me. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled open the door. The Cessna 170 sat in the hangar. The pilot came around the corner. He was a different pilot than my last flight. I introduced myself. He asked for help and I jumped on the towing rig, helping watch the corners as we towed the plane out of the hangar and on to the tarmac. Soon the LifeMed EMTs arrived and we were on our way. I sat with the pilot again and was given a crash course in VOR navigation.
"Hopefully I'll be getting my license one day and can use this stuff," I said to him over the radio.
"Who knows, you might need it before then," he said. I gave him a questioning glance. "Haven't been feeling good," he joked.
Since the topic of safety had come up, I asked him how the weather impacted the EMT flights, comparatively. He explained that when the weather was really rough, they would take the Blackhawk helicopter. If it was dangerous--the patient would have to wait, hopefully being kept stable by the limited staff at the clinics. "Sometimes," he said, "the wind will be so strong you'll turn into a windmill on the runway. The tail catches the wind and no matter how hard you fight it, you start doing 360's while you're sitting on the runway. We've had to do a lot of repairs from that. One guy a month ago had his plane flipped over." I asked if they ever had difficulties landing or taking off. "Oh yeah," he said, seriously, "all the time....all the time...."
Out the window, the barren tundra lay undisturbed. I wondered when the last time a human had walked on the square mile below me. We passed over a hundred miles of tundra, with winding rivers making their way toward the Bering Sea. Occasional patches of forest blotted the landscape. I scanned for moose and caribou until the forests disappeared. A looming shape appeared on the horizon. It was some time before I realized it wasn't a cloud formation but mountains. I wasn't sure if I was simply unaccustomed to seeing mountains or these mountains were particularly tall; they seemed to reach far above the 10,000 feet we were flying at and ended forcefully at the ocean. I wondered how far below the water the slope downward continued. Anyone hoping to answer that question would currently have to chip through the sea ice to find out, however. Not something I was keen on signing up for.
The sea ice stretched out as far as I could see, 30 ft tall chunks jutting upward, making the entire landscape appear sharp and mottled. The Hooper Bay runway ran parallel with the water. I could see the town of Hooper Bay in the distance--we'd definitely be needing some kind of transport to cross the distance efficiently. We landed without trouble. Nearly immediately after, a snowmobile carrying a makeshift sled raced up. We loaded our gear in it and hopped inside. This wasn't like the well-made dogsled I'd ridden in before--this was put together with composite board, a few nails, and was in desperate need of repair. Bracing myself on top of the Pepsi cases we were sharing the cargo space with, the sled began to race toward the town. I watched the snow whip by on either side. The ground was uneven; every time we hit a bump, a spray of snow covered me, temporarily blinding me until I wiped it from my eyes. It was much colder here than in Bethel. The wind hitting my face was extremely painful.
Struggling to minimize my exposure to the wind, I turned. As I did so, my back lightly pushed on the back of the sled. I felt the board supporting my upper back give way without warning. I grabbed the side of the sled and a handle from a Pepsi crate, turning my head in time to see the board I'd just been relying for support break off of the sled and tumble away behind us, quickly disappearing as we shot toward the village at nearly 35mph.
We soon approached the village. Again, the residents waved to us. The driver pulled the snow machine over small bridges and pulled up to the clinic. We jumped out and were soon treating the patient, who was in respiratory distress. The decision was made to transport them back to YKHC. We bundled them up in defence against the cold they'd soon be facing and made our way back out to the sled. But the sled had been moved. At some point during our treatment, the decision had been made to deliver the Pepsi. "We need another sled. Start asking!" the medic said to me. I soon found a family willing to take us back to the plane. We loaded the patient into the sled. There was only room for one on the sled. I glanced around. One of the patient's family members stood up. "Jump on mine," she said in Yupik. "I'll take you." I jumped on the back of the snowmobile and grabbed on just in time before she hit the accelerator, racing after the sled. "We've got to catch up," she said, this time in English. "Okay to go fast?"
"Sure," I said. I'd barely gotten the word out before I heard the engine rev. We flew over the humps in the snow, landing hard and lurching forward again, ready for the next one. The sled in front of us grew closer and closer. Just catching up with the sled apparently wasn't on the agenda. We flew by it and sped up even faster once we we in front. Soon, we skidded to a halt next to the plane. "Quyana," I said, saying thank you. She nodded and began her trip back. I prepped the plane and had it ready for the patient by the time they arrived. We hoisted them into the plane on the stretcher and I started the IV fluids before climbing into the co-pilot's seat again. We took off and made our way back. I tried to take in the scenery, knowing it wouldn't be long before I was away from this place. On arrival back at the hospital, I thanked the EMTs and helped make sure the patient was situated in the ER, recalling the gist of the chart to the physician on duty.
Though the day had been long, I enjoyed my time at Hooper Bay. The city had been quiet, nestled at the base of the mountains next to the ocean, and had a sense of tranquility about it. I imagined the town during the summer nights, the night sky unobstructed by light pollution. Being so close to the Bering Sea, marine life is bountiful in Hooper Bay. One day, I'd like to go back. Rumor has it they are building a new clinic and will need a pharmacist.