Lesson One: How We Survived Work and Isolation in the Arctic

Three principles allowed us to survive extreme circumstances in the Arctic.

Posted Nov 06, 2018

 In my book On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor’s Pursuit of Life, Love and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier, I chronicle my work as a bush doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) in the wilds of the Alaskan Arctic. Throughout the pages of the book, I describe in vivid detail how my wife and I were abandoned in the frozen north without help, how we had neither food nor shelter, formal transportation nor money, and how we were physically and emotionally isolated from anyone who could provide us comfort or support. I describe what it was like for me, as a doctor, husband, and father, to deliver my own son and then care for him after a serious accident because I was the only physician within hundreds of miles by air. 

Storytelling—the passing down of tales and fables—convey truth, educate, and illustrate issues of the human condition. In recounting the adventures and challenges we faced in the Arctic, I demonstrate how my wife and I endured a life incredibly different from the one we had known before and how we survived and ultimately adapted far beyond what we ever thought ourselves capable. Many factors led to our ability to adapt to Arctic life and isolation, but one of the most important was our capacity to rely on three simple principles I used during my childhood to live in a family burdened with addiction. In this post, I will discuss the first of these three principles; the ability to improvise.

Improvisation. How can we use this skill to help conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles when life presents us with extreme circumstances? It’s a question at play in a story that illustrates the way my wife solved a problem that seemed trite at first, but soon had the potential of becoming serious if nothing was done to solve it.

Toward the end of my medical internship and just before starting a residency in Pediatric Surgery, I received the unexpected notice that I was about to be drafted into the Army: pulled from my surgical training and sent to Vietnam to serve as a M.A.S.H. surgeon. It was devastating news that was soon tempered by an intervention of fate. To my good fortune, in place of being sent to southeast Asia, I was offered, and accepted, a commission in the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) to serve in Alaska. It was an offer I accepted without reservation.  

Our flight from the “Lower Forty-Eight” to Alaska was an adventure in itself. It wasn’t easy traveling from Los Angeles almost 3000 miles with a load of suitcases, a pregnant wife, two-year-old daughter, a dog, cat, parakeet, and duffle bag I’d modified to be filled with water and thus serve as a portable to aquarium for transport of our tropical fish that my wife insisted we take with us. But we made it, exhausted but complete. We began our venture in Anchorage, so I could be indoctrinated into the PHS and take my so-call “Arctic Survival Training”. Then, after two days, we headed to our final destination, Nome.

During our stopover in Anchorage my wife, Pat, following advice from other military wives she’d met at the TDQ (Temporary Duty Quarters), picked up a few supplies in the city before heading out to the bush. And because space was limited and considering all we had to deal with during flights, she bought only a few cans of peas and some baby applesauce she could stuff into her carryon bag. She planned to pick up whatever else we needed at a local grocery store once we arrived in Nome.

On our third day in Alaska, we arrived in Nome and promptly discovered that even basic food and everyday supplies were not only extremely limited in the Arctic, but cost far more than we could afford. So, once we finally got settled into some temporary housing that a hospital worker begrudgingly found for us, Pat unloaded the peas and baby applesauce she’d brought from Anchorage and began to prepare our first evening meal. Immediately she realized that besides having no real food to prepare, she had no cooking supplies, no plates, cups or glasses, and virtually no eating utensils.

We’d been loaned a vintage military WW II Jeep for wheels and Pat said we needed to make an emergency trip into town to visit a café and find a grocery store. So, I gathered up my family and we rumbled into town. Our search took less than fifteen minutes. The one restaurant in town was closed as was the town’s one general store. We returned to our temporary housing empty-handed, dismayed, tired, and very hungry.

Our daughter began to fuss. It had been hours since she’d eaten a simple breakfast before boarding the plane to Nome. Then she’d had no lunch, and dinnertime was more than an hour late. What was a mother to do?

Pat cried for help. Eager to settle down my starving daughter and fretful wife, I took a hammer and screwdriver I found tucked away in a cupboard and, using the tools as an opener, cracked open a can of peas. I followed by popping open a jar of baby applesauce. So even though my wife, mother-in-law (who joined us to help with the new baby), and I had nothing to eat, at least our child would not go hungry. But there was a problem. Chantelle’s dinner was cold mushy peas and applesauce—not exactly finger food—and we had nothing to use to feed her with.

Pat knew traveling could be hard on children and she wanted our daughter to have something familiar on the trip to ease her confusion about leaving home. With that in mind, at the last minute in L.A. she packed a set of Chantelle’s colorful, outgrown baby dishes into her carryon. The Winnie the Pooh plate, bright pink spoon, and Tommy Tippy Cup turned out to make all the difference in the world.

Pat used the baby dishes to feed our daughter and then, one by one, we three adults took our turn feeding ourselves the cold peas and applesauce using the baby plate and spoon. It wasn’t perfect, but at least we wouldn’t go to bed hungry. And since it was all we had, we used the baby dishes and cold canned food for the next five days until another opportunity to improvise came our way.

Pat used her instincts as a parent to see that our child was taken care of. She found a way to improvise for the lack of food, ability to cook, and eating utensils so that the problem could be solved. Her improvisation got us through the day until a more permanent solution could be found.

The ability to improvise is vital when adapting to life’s extreme circumstances. The U.S. Marines have a slogan for it. “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” Motivational speaker Roger Crawford talks about it in his book Think Again when he writes, “To succeed despite the challenges, we must plan, solve, recalculate, refocus, and think again. Then reinvent your plan, redirect your plan, and think again.” For me, one of the many ways to defeat the kinds of challenges he presents is to learn to improvise.

Use your ability to improvise and you’ll conquer tasks far beyond what you ever thought possible. When challenged with events and circumstances that seem overwhelming, remember what Crawford says. “Step back, plan, solve, recalculate, and refocus. We cannot expect yesterday’s thinking to bring success today.” Make changes in your behavior based upon your instincts and improvise when the need arises. Then, as Crawford says, “as a result, your sense of purpose will become more powerful than your problems!”