On Call In The Arctic

A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love, and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier

Cross the fish-out-of-water narratives of Northern Exposure with the crazy antics of Doc Martin and The Discovery Channel’s Alaskan Bush People and you get “On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love, and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier” – the extraordinary adventure memoir that chronicles the life and work of Dr. Thomas Sims as he struggles to save lives and himself in the Alaskan frontier.

Imagine a young doctor, trained in the latest medical knowledge and state-of-the-art equipment, who is suddenly transported back to one of the world’s most isolated and unforgiving environments—the Alaskan bush – then left there alone, with no other doctors to help, and expected to perform feats of medicine and surgery far beyond his level of training or experience. Well, that was Dr. Tom Sims and “On Call in the Arctic” is his story.

In the Arctic Sims finds himself delivering babies by Coleman lantern in remote Eskimo villages and performing surgery without real anesthesia under flashlight illumination. He travels over death-defying terrain by snowmobile to reach Arctic villagers in need and he delivers his own son. Before Arctic winter sets in, Sims is called upon to subdue a murderous psychotic hermit sitting atop a hill shooting up locals in the Eskimo village of White Mountain. And when winter does arrive, Sims fights depression from lack of sunlight and the death of two close friends. 

As if life isn’t difficult enough for Sims, even though he works tirelessly for all residents of Nome, certain elements of the community consider him an “outsider” since he is an employee of the federal government as part of the U.S. Public Health Service. Bearing that in his heart, he must overcome racism and cultural prejudices of those in power who want nothing more than to see him sent packing. 

“On Call in the Arctic” is a fast-paced read of adventure and hope, filled with adrenaline highs and heartrending lows. It is the inspirational true story of an idealistic young man who follows his instincts, based upon his training, to overcome unsurmountable odds and achieve success in saving lives more than he ever could have believed himself possible. 

READ EXCERPT

reviews

"Compelling! A page-turner from the first line on the first page to the last sentence in the Epilogue!  A unique, sometimes hard to believe, journey of a young doctor, with his young family, who triumphs over adversity, and learns from every challenge.  Tom Sims is a wonderful story-teller and reading ON CALL IN THE ARCTIC is like sitting and listening to Tom by a warm fireplace and you don't want it to end."

– fern Field Brooks, Award-winning TV/Film producer -

"Entertaining and insightful. Pulse racing reading, On Call in the Arctic is filled with adrenalin highs and heartrending lows. But it’s all in a day’s work in the land of the midnight sun. It’s also a love story and the starting of a family in the Arctic with his indomitable wife, Pat. Guaranteed great read."

– James A. Misko, award winning author of The Path of the wind –

On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier 

Thomas J. Sims. Pegasus, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-68177-851-8

"In his lively and touching debut, Sims recounts his year-and-a-half stay as a doctor in Alaska. As he neared the end of his internship at UCLA in 1971, Sims accepted a pediatric physician job with the U.S. Public Health Service and was assigned work in the remote arctic town of Nome. There, with his pregnant wife and young daughter, Sims served as the town’s lone doctor and encountered bureaucratic obstructions from the administrator at the hospital where he worked; local skepticism after his predecessor impregnated an Eskimo girl, then planned to give her an abortion; and a lack of modern medical instruments and drugs. Buoyed by his steadfast wife, Pat, and an instinctive gift for seat-of-his-pants-doctoring, Sims delivered babies, took out appendixes, and treated broken limbs; he eventually became a part of the community and a lifeline for far-flung Eskimo villages. His writing moves at a rapid-pace, in step with the life-and-death tales he recounts, slowing down only to focus on such moving occasions as the birth of a three-pound baby and the painful death of a hospital colleague. Sims has delivered a captivating account of practicing medicine in the furthest reaches of the U.S."

- Publishers Weekly

An excerpt

It was an adventure that changed my life.

Imagine a young inexperienced doctor, trained in today’s vast array of medical knowledge and amazing equipment, then suddenly transported back to standards of the 1920s and abandoned to practice his profession in one of the world’s most isolated and unforgiving environment, the Alaskan bush. That was me, when I arrived in Nome, Alaska. 

At first, I was paralyzed with fear. Could I deliver babies by Coleman lantern in remote Eskimo villages. Could I perform surgery without real anesthesia and under flashlight illumination? Could I bear the darkness of winter and survive travel over death-defying terrain by snowmobile, dogsled and bush planes to meet the challenges? Most frightening of all, could I detach myself enough to administer emergency care to my wife and daughter and muster the courage to deliver my own child because I was the only doctor in town?

Set in the backcountry of Alaska and rooted in the world of medicine, "On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier" is an adventure memoir chronicling my extraordinary story of saving lives in the Alaskan frontier. 

The memoir begins when I’m called to the hospital in the middle of night to resuscitate an unconscious teenager dropped off by friends. I do all I can considering the archaic equipment at my disposal, but the boy dies. The incident sets the stage for the type of life and medical practice I’m about to face working in the arctic as a physician with the U.S. Public Health Service.

The chapter that follows the boy’s death segues back a few months to tell the story of how I ended up in Alaska as a commissioned officer with the Public Health service when was about to be drafted into the army to serve as a surgeon in Vietnam. The chapter ends with a hilarious account of our move to the Arctic from Southern California with a wife, on the verge of delivering a baby, a dog, cat, chicken-pox covered kid, mother-in-law, parakeet and make-shift carry-on aquarium I’d devised for transporting our tropical fish.

Once we arrive in Nome and I see the outdated facilities, the lack of anesthesia and supporting services like adequate lab and x-ray, I know my conventional medical training will be of little value. It’s going to be frontier medicine and I will need to rely upon my instincts, based upon my training, to meet the challenge. This, fortified by principles I learned as a child to survive a family burdened with addiction – improvise, be flexible, and persevere – will enable me to survive the ordeal. 

A month after we arrive in Nome, our son is born, and my wife and I experience the unmitigated joy of delivering the child ourselves. But quickly I am overrun with work, night call, radio traffic where I am expected to make diagnoses and render treatment over a radio, dealing with a multitude of medical emergencies I’m ill-equipped to handle. Season Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) – the result of near twenty-four hours of darkness during the peak of winter – grips my emotions and I succumb to depression. The condition heightens until one night, when my wife and I experience a striking display of Northern Lights, my spirits are lifted to a place of hope and enlightenment. 

I am more than a little pissed when my best friend’s wife, whom I’ve never seen in clinic, presents one night in labor and expects me to deliver her child. I discover she has a life-threatening shoulder presentation when a tiny blue hand falls out of her birth canal. It is a life and death emergency for mother and child, and if I don’t do something heroic within minutes the baby will be crushed to death by powerful contractions and in the process, Juliette’s uterus will rupture. 

I cry out for help from an OB specialist in Anchorage who fails to comprehend the magnitude of what I’m facing. He tells me to pray and disconnects a call we’d struggled to complete.

What follows is an unbelievable tale of obstetrical daring. I do the unthinkable. With no obstetrical instruments to assist me, under simple spinal anesthesia I reach my bare, ungloved forearm deep inside the woman’s womb and, by the grace of God, grope around until I grab a foot and drag the baby out without injury. It is a miracle beyond description.

Winter fades and we have a few hours of sunlight. We plan a winter picnic with friends but have a serious snowmachine accident on the way out of town that spews my infant son across of field of ice. A splatter of blood trails in his wake. I’m the only one to tend in injuries and the stress overwhelms me. I change from father mode to doctor mode and take care of my boy’s every need. When finished, and my son is safe, I slip outside the hospital door and vomit in the freshly fallen show.

An emergency in the village of Golovin drags me away for a trip that should last an hour, but I am stranded for ten days in the blizzard of a decade. My wife, Pat, has no idea where I am, and I have no way to communicate with her. Desperate to find a way home, I risk my life making a horrendous trip across a frozen bay, strapped to a dog sled towed by a rusted old snowmachine, and driven by a teenage boy more confident in himself than I give him credit for. We are in search of a village where I might find a plane headed for Nome. I’m injured on the trip when I fall from the sled and, lost on the ice, believe I’ll meet my death on a stretch of frozen sea, my wife never knowing what became of me.

Racism and prejudice against government medicine infect my work. I am falsely accused of medical malpractice by a town busybody and of offering substandard care to the “whites” of town. I’m even criticized for trying to fit into the town community because I am a “Government Doctor” who has no interest in the town other than a place to fulfill his military obligation. For the first time in my life I know what it’s like to be held in contempt for issues over which I have no control. It makes my heart ache and I begin to question my desire to remain in Nome.

As the only doctor in town, I’m forced to care for those I love – my family, coworkers and friends. It makes detaching myself professionally almost impossible. When Esther, my hospital aide commits suicide and my friend, Frank Brown, dies of a heart attack, I’m overwrought with despair. And even though my commanding officer in Anchorage supports me in wrongful accusations brought by hateful people in Nome I realize I’ve reached my limit. Life and work struggles have taken a toll on my health, my personal life and my marriage. I apply for a transfer out of Nome.

It takes several months, but ultimately, I am relocated to Anchorage and complete my PHS tour at the Alaska Native Medical Center, the large hospital where I originally was to be stationed. In Anchorage, away from the stresses of untenable work and small-town politics, I rekindle my love of medicine and the joy I once knew from being a doctor.

The day my wife and I leave Nome, watching our coastal community through the window of our Alaska Airlines jet as it fades away in the distance, I reflect back on the experience I’d had there. I had come to Nome a young, inexperienced doctor, full of enthusiasm but laden with self-doubt. I left a better man and better physician. I discovered, living through the trials I experienced in the arctic, I could succeed in a world filled with challenge and adversity and could rely upon my instincts to show me a proper path to follow. Watching the town fade away, and anticipating life in a new location, I came to realize, in so many ways, Nome had given far more to me than I had ever given her back in return.  

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