The term “page turner” is generally associated with novels of suspense, intrigue and mystery. Rarely do we find it applied to a work of nonfiction. But one writer has crafted a memoir of his time as an arctic physician that well earns that accolade.
The book is “On Call in the Arctic” by Thomas J. Sims, M.D., a fast-paced and engaging read. Once begun, you won’t want to set it down for a moment.
In the early ’70s, as a young physician with the beginnings of a family, Sims was assigned by the Public Health Service to be the sole physician in Nome, Alaska.
The difficulties of extraordinary life in that part of 1970s Alaska were multiplied by his youth, inexperience, family responsibilities — and the fact that he was constantly on call to provide healthcare for not only the residents of Nome, but also the inhabitants of 13 Eskimo villages in southwest Alaska. (Yes, Eskimo, not Inuit, per the Author’s Note.)
Sims’ writing makes you his close companion. You live his experiences, making do with substandard living accommodations, poorly equipped medical facilities, having to improvise to meet one medical emergency after another, responding to calls using the most unlikely and perilous forms of transportation.
Example: A baby fixing to be born in a hurry, a young man in agony with acute appendicitis and a boy with a severely fractured arm — all coming through the emergency room doors minutes apart. Sims’ vivid dialogue pulls you into the ER with him and his aides as he scrambles to doctor them all simultaneously.
More: Another baby appearing determined to enter the world neither head nor breech first, but sideways — extending a blue hand in early greeting. A frantic phone call to an OB-GYN specialist in Anchorage yielded only a single word of advice — “Pray” — then the line went dead.
And: His own baby son injured in a violent “snowmachine” crash, requiring his immediate, simultaneous professional and personal attention.
Between medical adventures, mix in Sims’ captivating depictions of Alaskan natural phenomena — relentless winter darkness, aurora borealis and Bearing Sea “breakup” — and you feel you’ve been there.
Dr. Sims is coming to Idyllwild to speak about his unique Alaskan adventures at Idyllwild Library at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 16. All are welcome to attend.
“On Call in the Arctic” by Thomas J. Sims, M.D. (Pegasus 2018) is available from Amazon, iBooks and others.
Full disclosure: Jack Clark and Tom Sims were good friends and roommates at UCLA in the 1960s. Dr. Sims was not aware of the contents of this review prior to publication.