On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love, and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier, by Thomas J. Sims. Pegasus Books, 2018. 320 pages. $27.95.
In 1971, the young Dr. Thomas Sims, threatened by the Vietnam draft, agreed to join the U. S. Public Health Service in Alaska. Sent to Nome with his pregnant wife and small daughter, he served there as the town’s only doctor for sixteen months. “On Call in the Arctic” is his memoir of that time.
Alaska was a different place in those prepipeline years, and this book is a good reminder of, especially, the technological challenges to living in rural parts of the state at that time. Sims had little equipment to work with in the Nome hospital, was in contact with village health aides via an unreliable radio network, had to depend on taxi drivers and the local radio station to let him know when he was needed, and was at the mercy of weather when attempting to reach (and return from) neighboring villages, thirteen of which he was responsible for.
For Alaskans, though, the picture Sims paints may seem a bit over-the-top in its depiction of hardship and extreme adventure. He was “buried in the remote, frozen wasteland of Arctic Alaska . . . left to provide a home for my family and perform feats of medicine and surgery far beyond my level of training or expertise.” As Christmas approached, “Our life had been turned upside down, living in the Arctic enduring isolation, darkness, and loneliness more than we ever thought possible.”
Nome was not a place that Sims had sought, had an affinity for, or ever truly embraced, and, even though he and his family eventually made friends and participated in community activities, his account never leaves off communicating just how cold, dark, remote, lacking in niceties, and generally unpleasant the place was. He is the hero of his own story, working nonstop to perform near-miracles in a hostile environment with little support and even considerable opposition from the hospital’s administration. (The Public Health Service contracted its services to the hospital, and the two entities did not get along.)
The best parts of the memoir are, without doubt, the fast-paced accounts of some of the doctor’s medical cases and situations. Although most pregnant women at the time traveled to larger communities to give birth, Sims did perform some deliveries, and the details of a few difficult ones (drawn from notes and audio tapes he made at the time) are fascinating and often harrowing. He also dealt with the death of a glue-sniffer, the suicide of a friend (for whom he’d prescribed the deadly pills), emergency surgeries, an injury to his infant son, and the tranquilizing by trickery of a mentally ill man threatening to shoot up a village. Once, after an emergency flight to Golovin with only his medical bag in hand, it took him nine days and one life-threatening snowmachine ride through a white-out to get home.
Although Sims tell us that the community, aside from the hospital administration and one crotchety old woman, valued his efforts and treated his family warmly — including a big send-off when they left — he provides little sense of what Nome (“a shantytown”) and Nomites were really like in those times. He mentions spending time at the Board of Trade bar and going seal hunting with a friend and, vaguely, participating in the Fourth of July parade by driving the medical Jeep decorated with flags and “joining in on all the festivities.” Readers looking to learn more about social dynamics and how people besides the doctor’s family lived will be disappointed.
Many individuals do appear within the pages, and, although they’re treated with respect and compassion, they are little more than stick figures. It becomes difficult to tell them apart and remember their roles. Moreover, it’s impossible to tell which names are true ones and which have been changed; Sims says in a beginning note that he changed names and many other specifics to preserve anonymity.
Also in his beginning note, Sims explains his use of the term “Eskimo,” a choice made because that’s how he heard the Inupiat people refer to themselves at the time. He, unfortunately, also tries to capture their speech in an inauthentic dialect that makes them all sound the same — and not as the intelligent humans they were. For example, “Dat Mr. McCoy have somet’ing against you and da PHS.”
It’s apparent that Sims’ short time in Nome — and then filling out his commitment at the PHS hospital in Anchorage before going into private practice — made a great impression on him. It also presumably prepared him to be caring, flexible, innovative, and appreciative in the rest of his career. He never returned to Nome and lives today in Bend, Oregon, where he runs a medical consulting practice. “On Call in the Arctic” is his first book.