When you think of the “what if’s” of being up here, it is easy to consider all of the obvious possibilities. What if I were eaten by a bear? A rather unlikely prospect if one remains sensible in their daily endeavors. What if I were in a plane crash? Always a possibility, however as frequently as it does happen; amazingly, rarely are there severe injuries or death. What if I fell out in the cold and couldn’t get help? Again, a possibility, but if one is cautious in preparation, it isn’t likely to happen. What if I got sick in Bethel? Bingo!
Getting sick in Bethel is nine kinds of hell. I started feeling rough over the weekend but chose to ignore it. Heading out to a village on Monday was par for the course and while there I deteriorated rapidly. The tickle in my throat transitioned to a very wracking cough and a pounding in my face I couldn’t bear. Once leaving the village, getting into one of the tiny planes and then proceeding to complete three landings and take offs, my ears and neck had stabbing pains that brought tears to my eyes. Once finally in Bethel, I then made the unheard of decision to go to the ER.
The hospital was small, the ER tiny. I was triaged almost immediately where the nurse said I might have a community spread type of pneumonia. I’d heard about people dying up here from pneumonia. That wasn’t on my list of things to do. I asked about how long the wait might be . . . a guess, just a guess. She brightly said, it’s not too bad out there today, it shouldn’t be long.
Feeling hopeful, I returned to my seat. It was 7:30 pm. After about an hour, I was summoned for a chest X-ray. I again asked, about how long do you think it will be before I see the doctor? The X-ray technician said, oh, it’s not too bad out there today, it shouldn’t be long.
I again, returned to my seat, feeling hopeful. I watched not an endless parade of people trailing beyond the golden doors, in fact, I don’t think I really saw anyone heading towards treatment. I began coughing so violently I then experienced uncontrollable urination. My jeans were soaked through, and I wasn’t sure what to do at that point. I had been waiting for about two hours. Finally, a ward clerk came out with a handful of plastic ID bracelets, calling off names. When she called mine, I gestured for her to come nearer to me. I whispered to her that my condition was worsening and that I had wet my jeans. She said ok.
It was at that time, the nurse returned to inform me I was fifth on the list. Four people ahead of me. That wasn’t so bad.
Another patient who was also waiting for medical attention, vomited on the floor. A nurse came out and unceremoniously placed an upside down wastebasket over one of the larger puddles. About 30 minutes later, someone from custodial services made a feeble attempt at cleaning the offending mess. Three children then proceeded to move the plastic barricades that indicated caution due to a wet floor and use them as ramps for Match Box cars.
I watched patients vomit, spit on the floor, order food, accept food deliveries, eat, you name it. I watched children playing on the filthy floor. I also watched the clock. Fearing pneumonia, I stayed, but as I remained, I kept thinking, I really am not well enough to wait. I should get some rest, feel better, then I would have the strength to wait.
Two hours became three. Then four. Then five. Then six. I had been sitting in my urine soaked jeans for about four hours. I was feeling worse by the minute. I was alone, frightened and sick. I was having muscle spasms. I felt like I was in a tiled floor kind of hell. I wondered how many other patients had urinated on the seats. The thought nauseated me even more.
Off and on, I silently wept. I coughed. I cried. I wasn’t sure what to do. Finally after about six and a half hours, I was beckoned to the other side of the doors on my way to medical attention and hopefully feeling much better.
On the other side of the doors, I was asked questions I found confusing. How often do I drink alcohol? I couldn’t remember: I’m not much of a drinker. Did I smoke? No. Chew or dip? Nooooooo. What about marijuana? No. Meth? Nooooooo. How many children did I have? Four. Their ages? 19-29. Was I married? No. Divorced? Yes, but my husband was deceased. Why was I in Alaska? I work here. Who was my doctor here? I’ve not seen anyone here yet.
I was ill. Not substance abusing. Sick. I needed help. Antibiotics. Something. Finally, the doctor decided I was what I seemed, a very sick woman. He determined I was dehydrated (probably from the six plus hours waiting), and that I had a sinus infection. Thankfully, no pneumonia. I was set up with an IV that hammered a clear fluid into the veins in my hand and somewhere along there, I drifted off to sleep.
While asleep, I had peculiar dreams, the kind you have that you don’t want to remember because you know they are caused by some outside force like being ill, their meanings have no meanings. The doctor returned with a bottle of amoxicillin and instructions to buy a nasal spray and ibuprofen. No flying for a few days. I should stay home and rest. I explained I didn’t have sick leave: no work, no pay. He shrugged nonchalantly indicating it was up to me.
The folks on the other side of the golden doors gave me some clean, although very worn blue pajamas to put on. I left the hospital looking like I’d just been released from a refugee camp. Asking security to please call a cab, I saw one pull up and I opened the door asking if someone had just called. Yah, yah, git in, git in! Upon hearing that he had been summoned, I got in and gave him the address to the hovel I had been staying in. It was 2:30 in the morning.