I had little desire to be out when the temperatures were excessively cold and I learned to be respectful of the weather. It was in charge and I obeyed it carefully. Motorized vehicles had trouble starting and running when thermometers dipped to 25-30 below. Since most of rural Alaska was accessed only by airplane, the extreme cold canceled mail delivery flights, as well as passenger travel. It was a reality I learned to expect and accept.
When planes didn’t fly, rural villages were even more isolated. The inability of planes flying meant there was no access to the outside world. It didn’t matter that obtaining help in an emergence was critical. If the weather was bad, it was bad, end of story.
April 1 began like so many other days. It was 7:45am, I was still in my pajamas, and had just stuck my head outside to read the temperature. The thermometer read 20 degrees below zero and my nine-month old son had just tipped a freshly poured cup of extremely hot coffee on himself. He was screaming in pain! His Dad and I were within arms reach of him. How could this happen on our watch?
We were both devastated and for half a second frozen. I am sure both of us were thinking the same thing, how are we going to get help for our precious child? We both knew too well the nearest doctor was at least one plane ride away, maybe three plane rides.
At the same moment we shifted into action. Luckily for our son his Dad had been trained as a medic in the National Guard. As I securely held the walker, he was able to pull Zach out of the evil contraption that I still blame for giving him an added inch to his reach. Jed gently brought him straight up and out of the walker and then carefully pulled both his little turtle neck t-shirt and under shirt off of him. While he was removing the shirts I was holding Zach who was crying and puzzled as he looked at us. Later I would understand that if we had waited the shirts would have stuck to his burn sores creating a worse situation. We both could see his bare skin was already bursting with red oozing blisters.
Seeing the open sores shocked me. What should I do? Moms are supposed to protect their children and know what to do. I felt powerless when Jed handed our son to me. Zach looked at me as if to say “Mommy, help me” and my heart constricted in pain.
His screams of discomfort were penetrating and his little arms were beginning to reach for the seeping lesions. Jed cautiously arranged him in my arms placing Zach’s right arm that had not been burned behind my left side and told me to hold him firmly so he couldn’t grab at himself. After feeding Zach I typically placed him in his Johnnie Jump Up or walker so I could fix breakfast for Jed and get him off to work. Since I was not a full-time teacher my duties at the school didn’t start for another couple of hours.
Jed grabbed his heavier coat, hat, and gloves and asked me if I knew how cold it was outside. I told him according to our outdoor thermometer, 20-25 below. As he began to walk toward the Arctic entrance of our trailer, he was expressing hope that the snow machine would start.
Zach continued screaming and I was trying to soothe him as Jed popped his head back in the door to tell me, “The snow machine started. I will head over to Agnes’s office and see if a plane can get into the village quickly.” He then added, “Whatever you do keep him from touching the sores in any way.”
I know I heard him but all I could think about was soothing our son. I felt I was jogging through the trailer as I tried all of my normal tactics of singing little nonsense songs, walking and rocking him, turning on his favorite lullaby toy. He was fighting me to move his body most likely to pull at the pain that continued to rage. His sores continued to get redder and many were bursting. Zach was strong in his struggling but I was firm in my hold and gentle in my grasp.
Knowing I would need to move quickly if his Dad was able to get a plane into Holy Cross, my mind was randomly thinking about where a plane would end up – Bethel, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seattle, Los Angeles? The Bethel Hospital was a Public Health Hospital, which in Alaska meant it served Alaska Native people so I was unsure that they would actually help us.
I also realized I would need to put something on my body other than my nightgown to travel in this weather. At that moment, I felt so incompetent as a mother and as a person. Deciding what clothes to put on was even a challenge.
My mind was scrambling with these thoughts running through my head while I held my treasured, little son. My guilt about this horrible accident was out of control and impacting my ability to breathe and think. Everyone told me I was an overly protective mother and needed to relax more. Zach had been a very fussy baby, colicky, and still woke several times during the night. I had no family or close friends around me and the only other baby in Holy Cross was of course, easy, happy, slept through the night, and did everything early.
Suddenly I heard Jed walk in the door telling me a plane was on its way. I was relieved as my mind paused, instantly thinking everything would be OK. Then, my heart stopped again because I realized something he said made me understand he wasn’t going with us. How could I handle this by myself? I felt terrified.
But, there was no time to have these thoughts. As Jed took Zach, I quickly dressed, grabbed my toothbrush, and a few items throwing them in my daypack so he could get us to the plane. Everything happening was a blur – was this a bad dream, a hallucination or a nightmare? I heard Jed ask me what we could wrap Zach in that would keep him warm but not able to touch his open wounds. As I put his rabbit fur hat on his little head, I immediately thought of the down comforter I had made for him that we used when bundling up to take a walk or go to the store. His overall bottoms and tiny fur boots were still on him so the lower half of his body would stay warm. We changed his diaper, bundled him into the comforter, and then dashed outside.
Sitting behind Jed on the back of the snow machine was challenging because I had to hold Zach very carefully, as well as have a hand attached to Jed and keep myself upright as the snow machine took off and sprinted to the air field. We reached the airport as a Cessna 185 was taxing down. Agnes, the Health Aide, was there and told us she had alerted the Hospital that a nine-month old child had been burned and would be arriving in a few hours. She assured me that someone would be at the airport to drive us to the Bethel Public Health Hospital. I thanked her, said goodbye to Jed, and climbed into the small airplane so grateful for this first step in getting help for our son.
As we took off I realized how lucky we were the plane had been warming up on the Bethel runway when the call had been made. Motor vehicles need extra time to warm up when temperatures are 20 degrees below zero. I looked out the window and wondered when we would see Jed again.
Aniak was closer to Holy Cross, but had limited health care. Bethel was a primary hub that served 40+ villages in the Yukon Delta area, which was why the plane was warming up when the call came into the airport. Because Fairbanks was bigger, it seemed the most likely spot for us to wind up. However, chartering a flight to Fairbanks usually happened only in life and death situations. I was feeling fortunate that we would at least get some assistance in Bethel before being sent on to who knew where, even if it were only an assessment of his wounds.
Thankfully the skies were calm and the flight went smooth and easy. Zach had worn himself out crying so he fell asleep to the drone of the airplane engine. His little nap provided me a short and welcomed reprieve. However, as I looked down at my quiet, peaceful child my calm was immediately interrupted by a sense of panic. I began to frantically wonder if the hospital would just take my baby and tell me they would call when they knew his status. I had read stories about babies needing to go to a hospital for a variety of reasons and parents not being able to stay with them. The anxiety of this thought was overwhelming. This could not happen to me. I knew Zach needed me and I needed to be part of his care or I, too, would not be OK.
Suddenly, I understood that I needed to be strong and assertive in order to assure everyone I communicated with that it was critical that I not be separated from my son. I hoped that his being a breastfed baby would help. Most rural Alaska Native moms breastfed their babies so medical care people were accustomed to this factor.
As we landed in Bethel, I looked at my watch and noticed it had been two hours since this horrific incident had occurred. Knowing the distance to the hospital and the lack of traffic in Bethel, I felt certain we would arrive at the hospital in ten minutes as long as someone was there to take us as planned. I smiled to myself thinking we could have sat on the LA freeway for that long driving to the hospital.
The pilot finished landing the plane as he turned to tell me someone was coming to assist me out of the airplane and over to the taxi. Zach was stirring in my arms, which would make the climb out of the small plane more demanding on my part. My Sorel boots were a good choice because I figured the runway would be icy. Before departing the plane I checked Zach to make sure his hands couldn’t grab at his chest. The comforter blanket was the perfect choice for keeping him warm and not allowing anything to stick to the sores. I was grateful for the hand that reached up to help me. Someone unbeknownst to me had opened the door to the airplane and offered welcomed kindness with the simple words, “How can I help you?”
This guardian angel assisted me out of the plane onto the icy surface and then grabbed my daypack, which had been thrown in the back of the airplane. My focus was on Zach so the pack could easily have been left in the plane. He then guided me by gently holding my elbow and walking toward the airplane hanger. The air service had a small waiting area and desk in a closed off corner of the building. This large hanger was where the airplanes were worked on when repairs and normal maintenance tasks were required.
I could see the ‘car fog’ coming from several cars in the parking area next to the building. Many taxi services in rural Alaska were just cars, with no distinguishing marks to alert a person that their taxi had arrived. Often vehicles would be idling, warming up or standing by for a passenger. When we were close to the entrance of the office, my friendly assistant diverted me to one of the cars. The driver put down his newspaper as we approached jumping out of the car to open the door. He helped to steady me on the ice as I settled myself into the car holding my treasured bundle.
I thanked both of them. As the driver drove to the hospital, I became mesmerized with fear. What would happen next? Would they send me on my way after taking Zach? Would he be traumatized for life physically and mentally because of this incident? Seeing the hospital awakened me. I heard a quiet inner voice say be strong. I took a deep breath.