Thursday, March 1, 2012

Trip to the Doctor and the Practically Desperate Attempts to Prevent Freeze-up at 60 Below

NOTE: This was written Saturday January 29th even though I'm just getting it posted on March 1st.

This winter has been much colder than any winter in a long time.  I was in the school office the other morning getting things ready for class and I was listening to the VHF radio there (the communities communicate within in the communities and to a degree between communities via VHF radio.  In Kobuk we can talk with Shungnak and Shungnak can talk to both Kobuk and Ambler).  While I was listening to the radio, the friends pastor in Shungnak was doing his morning talk and prayer and he was mentioning how it was cold like it used to be in the old days, but hadn’t been so cold in a long time.  This cold has made it tough. In addition to that, everyone is so on top of each other in the winter that illnesses just spread like wildfire and so many people have been sick.  And thus, we get to the stories I’m going to tell in today’s blog.
About 3 weeks ago, I got quite sick.  I took a day off and then I felt a little better and came back to school.  I really shouldn’t have.  That afternoon, I left school early to get to the clinic before they stopped seeing patients.  Unfortunately, there was such a back-up that I didn’t get seen until 5 pm.  My ears were full of fluid, the throat was inflamed and my lungs were congested.  I was supposed to go to Shungnak that weekend, but didn’t because I was too sick.  The next week, I felt better, but my breathing became worse and worse.  Early in the week, I tried to play with my students while I was coaching them in basketball and after about 30 seconds I was having an asthma attack and my students were wondering if they needed to call the clinic.  Later in the week, I was having a meeting with the principal, a student and a parent and I couldn’t breathe.  Rob sent me to the clinic (which was bad timing because Katie was out sick and we couldn’t find a sub so I was teaching all the students 6-12.  When Rob sent me to the clinic he had to take on all of my students and was then teaching grades 3-12!).  At the clinic the health aide said my lungs hadn’t improved at all.  They sounded just like they had 5 days earlier.  She wanted to get me breathing meds, but the nurse practitioner in Kotzebue (who has never actually seen me) simply prescribed the same antibiotic that I had just finished taking that day.  The next day, Rob and I had a conversation where we had both thought, separately, that I should fly to Anchorage to see a doctor.  I began making arrangements. 
Unfortunately, with it being Thursday morning it wasn’t very practical for me to make it all the way to Anchorage in time to see a doctor before the weekend.  So I left Kobuk Friday afternoon, spent the night with friends in Kotz and flew to Anchorage Saturday morning.  The weather was bad in Nome so the plane didn’t land in Nome, but if it had, it would have taken me 6 take-offs and landings to get to Anchorage.  My bush flight flew to Shungnak then came to Kobuk to pick me and another man up.  Next, we went to Ambler.  From Ambler to Kiana, Kiana to Norvik, Norvik to Kotzebue.  The jet was supposed to go from Kotzebue to Nome, Nome to Anchorage.  We circled east of Kotzebue until we were out of fuel for that purpose, but the weather in Nome didn’t clear and so the passengers who were flying to Nome ended up back in Anchorage and were put on the next flight (which was boarding when we landed) to try getting to Nome again.
Before, I made it to Anchorage though I had two more breathing episodes.  Thursday afternoon while I was teaching I had another.  One of my students asked me a math question and when I went to answer I suddenly couldn’t breathe.  I sat down and put my head between my knees.  One of my students got really worried and tried calling the office.  He tried and tried, but couldn’t get through.  When he couldn’t get an answer he decided he was running to the main building to get the principal (who also teaches).  A few minutes later, I heard Rob come pounding up the stairs.  I was okay by that point and talking again.  Rob came in and said that the student had run in and said, “Cannon’s on the floor dying.” I had already decided to make the trip to Anchorage, but that was confirmation to both Rob and myself that it was warranted.  The second, episode occurred while I was in Kotz at my friends’ house.  They worried that maybe they should take me to the emergency room, but I really didn’t want to go and recovered okay,
At the doctor’s office several things were discovered including that despite taking vitamin D I was vitamin deficient.  Also, my asthma had apparently been far worse than I realized for months.  My blood tests showed that I haven’t been getting enough oxygen for over 2 months.  My guess is since I was diagnosed in the fall with bronchitis.  I was diagnosed with having both a virus, which was made worse by several vitamin deficiencies and bronchitis.  I’m doing better, but my breathing still has a long way to go (I was, however, able to run and play with my students at practice this afternoon).
My return on Wednesday almost stalled.  It was +5F in Anchorage.  We got to Kotzebue where it was -18F, but while I was waiting in Kotz for my flight the pilot came out to talk to the Kobuk bound passengers.  At that point Kobuk was only a few degrees above the minimums for the plane to land (the problem being that if it is too cold the plane’s engines won’t re-start after landing).  She warned us that that morning the plane had had to abort landing in Kobuk and that if we chose to go we may very well end up back in Kotzebue. The other Kobuk passenger was a young lady who lives in Kobuk and we both wanted to try it (after all, we could either try going to Kobuk and risk getting stuck in Kotz or not try and for sure end up stuck in Kotz).  About 30 minutes later, we were ready to depart.  For Bush flights the pilot comes out to the terminal announces which villages he/she is flying to and the passengers get up and follow the pilot out to the plane.  There is no security check.  When our flight was announced we got up (along with passengers bound for Shungnak and Ambler), and walked over near the door to gather.  The pilot asked the other Kobuk bound and me if someone was meeting us at the airport.  We were like “no, we can walk.”  It quickly became apparent that she didn’t know we lived in Kobuk.  We reassured her that we would be fine.  She had told us at -40 she had had a couple of passengers who got to a village and no one was there to pick them up and they didn’t know where they were going (Kobuk is fortunate.  The airstrip is right adjacent to town, but in many villages the airport can be as far as 2-3 miles outside of town).  She explained how she couldn’t just leave them (when the weather is warm I think they in fact do just leave passengers even if there is no one there to meet them).  She didn’t explain what happened in the end though and I wish now that I had asked.
Thursday was warm enough that the planes came, but yesterday and today there have been no flights because it has been too cold.  Additionally, there is a thermometer, set up by a hydrologist, at the greenhouse that we built that broadcast the temperature to the Internet (, but we have learned this week that it won’t broadcast when the temperature drops below -59 F. It will still record the temperature and when it returns to -59 F or above it puts up all the data.  We have been below that threshold for large portions of the last few days. 
It is at these temperatures that my heat went out.  Friday I came home for lunch to find my heat out and the temperature had already dropped significantly.  We found the school maintenance man and he got it working again.  However, about 12 hours later (around 1 am) it went out again.  I woke up to an alarm and a rapidly cooling house.  I couldn’t get it re-started and so I plugged in some electric space heaters (which won’t do much, but was the best I had) and left for the school.  We have what we call the VIP room, which is a small bedroom like bed with a nice bed in it.  It is right off of the school office where the staff bathroom is, which has a shower, and the staff kitchen.  We usually use this room for people visiting (counselors, mentors, district office people etc.), but it comes in handy for teachers who suddenly find themselves without any heat.
In the morning I called Rob who called the maintenance man and the head of maintenance at the district.  By this point our school maintenance man had already cleaned the ignition (he did that a couple of weeks ago when my heat went out) and changed the filter (yesterday) and of course checked the flue.  He may have also done some other things, but those are the ones I know of. When Rob called the head of maintenance he was not happy to learn that it was only 44 degrees in my house because he said inside the walls are usually a good 10 degrees colder and that was too close to the freezing point for comfort.  At this point, we had the water running in both sinks and the tub and the space heaters in the kitchen and the bathroom.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much the district could do because there are no planes flying because its too cold (great time to have the heat go out, isn’t it?)!  Rob and our school maintenance man then went to my house to talk with the district plumber, who knows the set-up in Kobuk better than anyone else, to try to get things working.  I actually have two oil monitors.  The first one went out a while ago and the district sent a new one, but then Katie’s heat went out and since her place only has one (mine is the only one with two) it was installed in her place instead.  They managed to jimmy-rig both oil monitors and get them working for the time being.  In the last few hours, the one in the bedroom has gone out a few times, but is currently still restarting.  The other one is still running and I pray it continues through tonight (I will post this tomorrow.  I am typing from home and I don’t have Internet at home) and until the planes start flying again (the district has sent one to Bering Air and it’ll come out as soon as the planes can fly again).  For now though, thanks to an incredible effort by several people, I have heat and my water is frozen.
Not freezing the pipes is a really critical issue and why the district is so concerned with the heat in my house not working.  I of course am fine staying in the school.  It is quite comfortable and a nice fall-back (my own home is of course preferred, but still it’s good to have a comfortable fall-back option), but if my pipes freeze up too badly then there is no unfreezing them until spring (think May).  Also, Rob and I both live in the old clinic which was converted into essentially a duplex.  The water and sewer both enter and exit from my side.  If I lose water and Sewer, so does Rob.  During today’s fun my tub drain did freeze-up.  This however, is not a big freeze-up and by opening up the venting under the tub (it’s built on platform) and blowing one of the electric heaters right into we were able to thaw it out (especially important because it was full of water because the water had been running to try to prevent it from freezing – up).
I’m attaching some photos taken at the Alaska Airlines Terminal in Kotzebue on my most recent trip to Anchorage.  They are scarily relevant to today’s blog post.  Enjoy!
 This photo was the Alaska Terminal in Kotzebue on my way to Anchorage on Saturday January 21st.
This was on the way back the following Wednesday.  They had gotten the lines defrosted and running again...

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