23C and no ice in sight in Arctic

Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.

Contrary to what many people may presume, summer is not my favourite season to work as a physician in the Canadian Arctic.

Yes, the sun shines a lot and the temperatures are on average 10C to 12C in the middle of the long, summer days – a far cry from the long nights and the thermometer dipping deep below zero in the late fall, winter and most of the spring.

But the overwhelming clouds of voracious mosquitoes are aggressive and given a chance would take me for a great source of a free meal.

Add to that, some mean black flies eager to take a piece of my skin as well as my blood and most of the appeal of relatively warm and sunny weather and long days disappear.

In the past few columns, I have written about making choices and how important it is to have the ability and freedom to make those choices.

This time, it is about choice of a different nature.

The Nunavut recruiter trying to find physicians willing and able to work in the Territory contacted me and was desperate to get someone to look after settlements that had not seen a doctor for far too long.

She put me in a position of making a difficult choice, either to endure long flights, often with delays caused by unpredictable weather, staying in substandard housing, being away from al the comforts of home, having to prepare my own meals etc, or simply saying “No” and let the people in the Arctic fend for themselves.

Nurse practitioners and other experienced nurses at the health centres in these hamlets, generally they do a good job sorting out who can look after themselves and who needs to be seen by a physician.

But when in doubt, they call doctors like me and even though I am thousands of kilometres away, with the help of the eyes and ears and skills of the nurse examining the patient, complemented with Internet and fax communications, together we make an educated choice on what is best for the patient.

I like to play it safe and when not sure if the problem can be handled locally we evacuate the patient.

Some days that gets to be expensive for the Canadian taxpayer with a price-tag of between $25,000 and $30,000 per emergency flight to a big-city hospital.

It has been my experience that for a veteran physician to be on site, he/she can prevent many of these emergency evacuations without endangering the patient and save the government a bundle.

The recruiter was both desperate and convincing, sweetening the request by asking me to go to Kugluktuk, a few hundred kilometres north of the Arctic circle.

Kugluktuk is a small community of a little more than 1,000 people on the  southern shore of the Northwest Passage fairly near two diamond mines where Inuit work.

It has gained a better reputation than some of the other aboriginal settlements and because I had never been there before, my curiosity helped me make the choice of saying “yes.”

I am glad I agreed to go.

Being well above the Arctic Circle it was 24-hour daylight.

Much to my surprise, there was open water on the Northwest Passage. No snow or ice to be seen.

The temperature was 23 C – double the customary average – and people were swimming in the Coppermine River on the edge of town. Climate change is a reality in the Arctic.

But that was not the only surprise. There is a beautiful high school building with an enrolment of some 160 students from Grade 7-12.

The school was closed for the summer holidays and I did not have a chance to speak with the staff, but this school gained a positive notoriety nationwide on account of the Kugluktuk Grizzlies, a local lacrosse team.

Inspired by a high school teacher, the students started an athletic program of lacrosse which changed the community from the highest suicide rate among teenagers in all of Canada, to zero.

More about that in a future column.

Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.

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