Thomas J. Sims M.D.

Under Extreme Circumstances

Under Extreme Circumstances

How to survive and adapt when training or experience give you little to rely on.

Posted Oct 09, 2018

As a physician, I’ve never doubted the need or value of scientific research. Who can argue the fact that data, generated by research that is reproducible, blinded, and scrutinized by the highest standards of statistical analysis, can produce conclusions that are beneficial to the human condition? We learn from research. We make changes and improve ourselves based upon information research data provides. But research findings are subject to fault and disagreement. Often, research findings, arrived at properly by one qualified investigator that is substantiated and therefore postulated to be true is often challenged by another examiner and afterwards, felt to be false. Conflict develops and then, a differing of opinions.   

            I know from my own life there is another way to study human behavior. It’s less analytical and less reproducible than conventional study, yet, in my experience, has proven itself capable of showing a path to primal truth we must never ignore. I’m talking about the telling of stories.

            Stories – the passing down of fables, advice, history and secrets from generation to generation – have been a way of describing the human condition since mankind began scribbling petroglyphs and pictographs on cave dwelling walls.  Stories have a unique way of combining heartwarming personal truths with cold, impersonal scientific facts. Stories, as seen and told through the eyes of human perspective, filled with laughter, tears, excitement and desire, often bridge the gap between lessons learned from scientific data and what life experience tell us is the truth.

            In the upcoming weeks and months, I will be writing a series of blog posts titled “Under Extreme Circumstances”. Stories in the blog will echo true adventures from my book: “On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor's Pursuit of Life, Love and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier". My stories will show how my wife and I, totally unprepared, carved out a life while living and working in one of the world’s harshest environments, the Alaskan Arctic. They will show how we adapted to overwhelming change and need.

            I worked in the wilds of the Alaskan bush as the only physician for 7000 people in the city of Nome, plus another 7000 in isolated surrounding Eskimo villages. There, I performed surgery without adequate anesthesia and under flashlight illumination, I delivered babies under Coleman lantern, traveled over perilously terrain by snowmachine and bush plane, and even delivered my own son because I was the only doctor in the area. Under these extreme circumstances, I had, not only to survive, but perform feats of medicine and surgery far beyond my level of training or experience. If I failed, it would mean the difference between life and death.

            How did I do it?

            How do any of us adapt to life when subjected to situations that seem beyond our ability to cope? At some point we all have them: the unexpected death of a loved one, divorce, illness, grief. How do we make it through these times when our training or life experiences fail to show us what steps to take, what path to follow? Ultimately, we do adapt, and it’s amazing how well it happens. But what skills can we develop that will make this process easier and more effective?

            I learned three simple principles living and working in the Arctic that allowed me to cope. They were the same principles I discovered in my childhood that allowed me to adapt to difficult years growing up. My blog “Under Extreme Circumstances” will guide readers through the extraordinary situations I encountered in Alaska and will show by example what I learned that can apply to mine and everyone’s life, no matter what their age, job, or situation in life. In my blog I will describe each of the three principles and will tell how I still use them today in my everyday life.

            I look forward to talking with you again.