I never really knew how my decision to travel to remote and isolated locations across the vast and mostly unseen Canadian north became to fruition. I remember early in my northern career, someone talked to me about nurses who worked on their own without any physicians on site, no hospitals, in remote arctic health centres and I had thought, ”COOL” I want to do that. And that was it. Shortly after, I worked my first isolated post and I was hooked. I had found my true love. Fast forward 8 years working in this specialty of nursing, 20 different remote communities later and still counting, I can shout to the world that I absolutely LOVE what I do! Others see me as the adventurist type but I feel it’s just living my life with purpose. Enjoying what I do passionately, experiencing new cultures, visiting beautiful northern landscapes, and living life’s to its fullest. The north has my heart.
I have endless stories in which to share of northern experiences alone but when someone asks me what is the most memorable nursing moment so far it is always this one story. Why? Because this is when I discovered life’s wonderful adventure and truly fell in love with Canadian remote nursing.
We’ve been delayed three times today due to mechanical problems. Our original departure was supposed to be 9:40am this morning. At 5:30pm we are finally departing for Ulukhaktok, the farthest north I’ve ever been with a short stop for fuel in Kugluktuk. The First Air’s (ATR42) brings food mail, parcels and passengers 3 times/ week. Today there’s only myself, the flight attendant and a very nice couple whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the airport today and home is Holman (the still used common and previous name for Ulukhaktok). They are very excited to go back home. As we are taking off, I am feeling nervous this time as I am going to be isolated for 31 days on an island that is past the arctic circle at latitude 70°N, longitude 117°W. It’s an island ABOVE Canada’s already massive land size: Victoria Island. It is actually the 8th largest island in the world, and at 217,291 km2 it is Canada’s second largest island. We are nearing the shortest day of the year, so I heard it should be 24 hr of darkness soon. I have never been or worked this far north before.
We have an hour and 45 minutes to our fuel stop destination. I’m too nervous to read so I just sit back and listen to my iPod and delighted to be enjoying a still free warm meal on the flight. Tonight’s menu: Buffalo Stew. Mmm, it is delicious. With a population of 330 people, I’m wondering what its going to be like up there…What do they do? With no restaurants, malls, coffee shops, or entertaining establishments there can’t be much to do. I’m sure there is still traditional hunting and fishing, which will be interesting to see and hear about. I wonder if I could ask to go on the land and hunt Muskox with them? I’m also wondering if I will be able to take on the new responsibilities waiting for me. In the 2 years I had been working in remote northern nursing so far, I never would have thought today I would be going not only to a little 2 manned nursing station in the middle of nowhere but also as “the” Acting Nurse-In-Charge!
As were landing in Kugluktuk I feel a little excitement being so far up here, where not many people in the world even know about, let alone visit. I am next to the Arctic Ocean…wow. Remembering sitting in geography class from junior high thinking the Arctic Ocean was as a unimaginable body of water so far far away. I was actually here. It feels (sort of) like an accomplishment. A passport stamp without the stamp. We have to disembark the plane for 30 min or so and into this little shack known as the local airport. At -45 with windchill, the short walk inside reminded me to be grateful to have bought a parka. There are posters on the wall of Inuit people with squiggles and strange forms beneath the pictures. A language I do not understand but looks like beautiful artwork. Its hard to comprehend that these squiggles and shapes transform into beautiful sounds spoken as the Inuinnaqtun language.
After another 90 minutes flight, its dark on approach but I can see the looming cold Arctic Ocean beneath us partially frozen and the glimmer lights of a community on the other side. I’m finally here.
I am greeted by the other nurse in charge who has finished her contract and is leaving on the same plane I arrived on. She hands me the keys and a radio and says “here you go, you are on-call tonight and everything you will need is on the Nurse-In- Charge desk”. We describe this scenario in northern nursing with the saying: hitting the ground running. Except its a very small community, so how busy can this be?
There are many community members in the small airport greeting me with friendly smiles and welcomes. Its pretty obvious I am an outsider and a nurse with my red parka. I am happy all of my bags, all 5 of them made it with me this time as it is quite an art to pack for this job. Locals are picking up their cargo and placing it in their trapper’s sled and off they go on their snowmobiles. Where is my vehicle I wonder? Is the other nurse picking me up? A man approaches me and points to his snowmobile and he starts to load my bags in his trapper’s sled. Oh! Its now 1030pm and I am tired from the long journey. It feels strange to be here and so far north. What an adventure already!
My apartment is located in the health centre and looks nice and clean. With a quick walk through the health centre, it too looks very nice and organized. I noticed most of the walls are covered with dozens of interesting puzzle artwork which illustrate all kinds of beautiful northern images.
I begin to unpack. I hear dozens of snow machines passing by and then this strange siren. A siren that sounds just like the ones you would hear in the movies when a town gets ready for a tornado, a warning as if a storm was coming. What kind of warning would they have here? A polar bear? Are there polar bears in this area?? As I hear more rushes of snowmobiles passing by it occurred to me however that it was likely the town’s “curfew” siren. At least I hoped it was…
As I finished to unpack, its nearly 0100am and I am settling into the cozy warm bed. I quickly begin to fall asleep …when the phone rings. An elderly lady is sick in the community and her daughter was explaining to me that the nurses get to her house by snowmobile as her mother is unable to walk. There is also no vehicle here I noticed. Its pitch black and all of the houses in this community are blue. She explains the location. She lives “x” amount of “blue” houses down “x” amount of rows, from the “right” of the Northern store (which is also blue). Where is the snowmobile key? Where is the home care bag with stethoscope etc?
As I rush out of bed, redress with full winter gear head to toe, I fumble around the health centre for equipment and quickly stuff a stethoscope, thermometer, pulse oximeter, blood pressure cuff, and a few medications into my parka pockets along with the radio. I find the key to the snowmobile and finally go outside for a big surprise. You would think they would give us the cadillac of snowmobiles seeing as this is our ambulance and all. Its an older pull start ski-doo model. Thankfully I do know my way around snowmobiles but a pull start at -45 weather is lets just say a bit of a challenge!
As I am riding on the snowmobile towards this “blue” house to see the sick elder woman with basic equipment stuffed into my parka, I laughed to myself as this moment starts to sink in. This is day one. It has to be the strangest foreign yet cultural adventure I have ever been on so far and I’m loving every minute of it.