Thursday, April 18, 2019

On Call in the Arctic - Book Review

on call in the arctic book cover
On Call in the Arctic
I have been on a medical memoir jag lately, and On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor's Pursuit of Life, Love, and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier, has certainly whetted my appetite for more.  Part Northern Exposure, part MacGyver, this is the perfect read for anyone who enjoys the kind of adventures that can only take place off the beaten path.  Though the story takes place in the Alaskan frontier of the 1970's, its themes of cultural divides, and racism, along with an undercurrent of hostility, make this a very timely book.

As Dr. Thomas Sims is about to enter his pediatric surgical residency, his status suddenly changes overnight when he is informed that he is about to be sent overseas to serve within a M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam.  With a wife nine-months pregnant, and a two-year-old daughter, Sims is relieved to be given an alternative.  He can choose to accept a plum military placement as a U.S. Public Health Service physician in Anchorage, Alaska.  Not only does that mean that Dr. Sims can keep his family together, and be stateside for the impending birth of his son, but Sims is also offered the position of his dreams—Chief of Pediatric Surgery in a well-equipped urban hospital.

Perfect, right?  Well, not so fast.  Upon arriving with his family in Anchorage, Sims is shocked to receive new orders to report to Nome, Alaska, where he will be the only doctor in a very isolated setting.  Not only will Dr. Sims serve the remote outpost of Nome, but he will also be responsible for the medical needs of thirteen outlying Eskimo villages. 

This is where things get mighty interesting.  Imagine the shock, if you have been trained in state-of-the-art medicine, to enter a medical world without adequate facilities, with very few supplies, and almost no support.  Not only that, but a major scandal which occurred during the previous physician's tour of service has created the kind of mistrust and prejudice that will make relationship-building almost impossible.

The most fascinating element of this memoir involves the stories of frightening, and yet exhilarating, medical emergencies.  How do you save the life of a patient whose appendix is about to explode when you don't have an operating room, the right supplies, or a surgical team?  How do you deliver a huge baby in distress when a C-section isn't an option?  This is where Dr. Sims has to use a combination of intuition and MacGyver-like ingenuity to save the day.

I can't help but believe his time in the Alaskan bush made Thomas Sims a better doctor.  Medical training in perfect conditions is one thing.  Learning to improvise in the heat of a life-or-death emergency is another.  To be able to master both the art and science of medical service requires a rare gift.  The beauty of this story is in watching that gift emerge.

From harrowing medical procedures, to death-defying bush plane and snowmachine travel in wicked weather conditions, this book has it all.  Though the harsh conditions and interpersonal divides take their toll, On Call in the Arctic is a book that dwells in the miracles that can happen in the midst of hardship, misunderstandings, and the messiness of living outside your comfort zone.

I recommend this memoir to anyone who enjoys living, or living vicariously, the kind of life that takes one to the wilder side of existence.  There is something essential to be gained when we leave the safe confines of a predictable way of life.  Somewhere out there are brave new worlds to be found and explored.

Reading this book is one way to step into a world where the past may inform the future, especially given the common threads between our current societal struggles and those with which Dr. Sims wrestled.  Here's to finding our way to a brave new tomorrow. 

Note: The author may receive a commission from purchases made using links found in this article. “As an Amazon Associate, Ebay (EPN) and/or Esty (Awin) Affiliate, I (we) earn from qualifying purchases.”


  1. This sounds like a fabulous book filled with adventure that I would only want to live vicariously. I may like taking the occasional hike, but roughing it all day, every day would not be for me. Still, I am sure I will enjoy reading this book.

    1. Well, we might just need to shake up your world, Mouse. ;-) Nothing wrong with vicarious bush adventures. I wouldn't be able to cope with the mosquitoes the author described as "dragonfly-sized." He and his wife tried to celebrate an anniversary with a camping trip. They made a quick break for home when the skeeters came out and nearly carried them away. That was their very first, and last, camping attempt.

  2. I'm with Mouse. I know I would enjoy this book and the adventures Dr. Sim's undergoes, but do so safely tucked in my armchair in a warm house. The weather alone would get to me, being a warm-weather person. LOL. No roughing it for me these days. But I do appreciate learning what life is like in not-ideal conditions and how people cope with them.

    1. Armchair travel can be the best of both worlds. I could brave the weather having grown up in the frigid north. The thing that would get to me would be those long dark months. I do need my light. Like you mentioned, it is good to learn from how others cope with challenges.

  3. Okay, this is another one that is going on my list of "must reads". I loved MacGyver and love medical type novels as well. Real life, even better! This sounds like a "can't put you down yet" kind of book and I love those the best! Thanks for this great book review.

    1. It is definitely a one-of-a-kind medical adventure. MacGyver is the guy you need in this case. Enjoy!

  4. I have always dreamt of living and working in Alaska, but never have been brave enough to make that jump. This book sounds like exactly my cup of tea. I love your reviews, you always have such good taste in books.

    1. I thought of you when I was reading this book because I know you would love to do Alaska. I'm right there with you. Wish I had done it 20 years ago. You never know, though. It could still be in your future.

  5. I love medical memoirs too! Adding to my reading list!


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