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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

How's Alaska?

“How’s Alaska?” is the question I get most frequently from friends and family these days. I’ve been here for exactly 85 days, but who’s counting?  Paradoxically, it feels as though I’ve just arrived and I’ve been here for years.  


One thing that is true about me is that I cannot lie or pretend, so don’t ever tell me about a surprise party–I will spill the beans inadvertently.  If a child asks me if Santa Claus is real–like my daughter actually did when she was 6 years old– I will always tell it straight. Nope, not real. The fairies either.  Sorry Erinna! 


So when I get the question about my new life–new home, new job, new climate, new culture–I cannot lie and say “It’s great!” or even “It’s good.”  Today I’d say, “It’s complicated,” like I’m trying to explain to my best friend why my new boyfriend isn’t as great as I thought he was going to be. 


Where do I start? The climate is unlike anything I have ever experienced–go figure since I’m only 555 miles from the Arctic Circle.  Yesterday the sun rose at 4:20 am and set at 11:42 pm, for a grand total of 19 hours and 22 minutes of sunlight, with about 3.5 hours of twilight.  Even with my blackout blinds–which I close at 7 pm so my brain can start making some melatonin–and my eye mask, I still have trouble falling asleep.  Thankfully I don’t have hypomania, which many folks up here experience, as they fill every light filled minute with all the activities and projects that were put aside in the winter.  With my work schedule, I have no desire or energy to do much on my time off–other than eat, sleep, read, and Netflix–no matter how much light there is in the sky. 


The temperature is also different, ranging between the 50s and 60s, with occasional low 70s thrown in there for good measure, like throwing a treat to your cat to keep them purring.  While I don’t love the high 90s and 100s of previous summers in Reno, I am often cold up and apologizing to my patients as I examine them with icy fingers–telling them at least I have a warm heart.  These cooler temps still feel quite chilly to me, so while others around me are wearing shorts and t-shirts, I still have long pants and sweatshirts covering my flesh.  I was surprised to hear from the locals that the sunshine we are having these last two weekends is more sun than they had the entire last summer.  What???  I thought summers in Alaska were supposed to be picture perfect stunning!  Apparently, in Anchorage anyway, the last two summers were rainy and gray.  Good thing I didn’t move here last year!


Our home, a two level townhouse not far from the Cook inlet of the Turnagain Arm, is comfortable and cozy, only 4.5 miles from the hospital, but alas, super close to many neighbors.  I miss the space we had in our home in Reno–not just the inside space, but also the space in our yard and between us and the next houses.  Even if there was enough space here to get a hot tub on the back porch–which there isn’t– we certainly wouldn’t be soaking in the nude like we did in Reno.  Yes, I know these are first world gripes, but they are real to me and are affecting my mood.  


What is lovely about the house is that it has 3 small porches, one just off my bedroom.  It's the perfect place to sit in the quiet of the mornings, drinking my cup of coffee mixed with MudWTR, writing in my journal, and doing some reading.  All the things I try to do every day in order to fill up my tank before going to work, where it recently has felt like I am going to battle. 


By far the biggest challenge I have experienced in Alaska is my job.  At first I thought it was because I had 7 weeks off prior to our move, so I had lots of down time to do other things that bring me pleasure.  This is part of it I’m sure, but it’s not the whole story.  The job I thought I had signed up for is not the job I am doing, or more specifically, the job is demanding more from me than I had anticipated.  I’m still taking care of patients–which continues to be the best part of my days–but changes have been made since I signed my contract last October, changes that have increased my workload.  The rehabilitation unit is growing due to the high demand–it’s the only rehabilitation hospital in the entire state–so I am working way longer hours than I thought would be needed for this job.  


Then there’s the acuity of the patients: many are incredibly sick and complicated and severely injured: patients with gunshot wounds to the head and spine–either self-inflicted or as attempted homicide, with failed suicide attempts with guns or with semi-trucks, with trauma from car and motorcycle accidents–no helmet laws here–and falls from the highest mountain in the US–Denali.  There is so much trauma, so many mental health crises, and so much alcoholism and drug addiction.  And all this trauma is causing my own sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, into what’s called “Secondary Traumatic Stress.” or STS, the emotional reaction that caregivers have when exposed to patients who have themselves been traumatized. 


I’m doing all the things I know to cool down my flight or flight response: good sleep, alcohol free (could also decrease my caffeine intake, I’m sure that would also help), exercise/body movement, talking with loved ones, and meditation.  The challenge is trying ways to introduce rest and relaxation into my work day, rather than just book ending my long days, or expecting a two day weekend to erase all the STS from the previous week.  All I can do for now is take it one day at a time.  And breathe.  




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11 Comments


Guest
Jun 28

Love hearing about your adventures

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Guest
Jun 25

You are such a gifted , talented writer ✍️ Valerie . Loved , loved this post . Change is always hard and you are such a great physician who has empathy . Your mental health is more important . Give yourself some time but if it becomes unbearable, break the contract and move on . At least you got to enjoy Alaska

.

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Valerie Brooke
Valerie Brooke
Jun 25
Replying to

Thank you! And you're right: I have options and always will.

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Guest
Jun 24

Oh my!! I totally understand the light problem… hence my early retirement. I wasn’t sleeping well before or after my 12 hour shifts. I’m sorry the job has become so stressful. That sucks. I also understand the temp thing- as I sit here in my heavy robe. Layers, indeed, is always the thing. I look forward to getting together! Have a great trip!

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Valerie Brooke
Valerie Brooke
Jun 25
Replying to

Retirement sounds lovely! Can't wait to get there!!

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Guest
Jun 24

Thank you for sharing your raw honesty. I’m gently witnessing and holding space for you through this journey. ❤️🥰

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Valerie Brooke
Valerie Brooke
Jun 25
Replying to

Thank you! Just saying it out loud helps. And as a very astute friend told me: "It's not you Valerie, working in healthcare is insane." Yup.

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Guest
Jun 24

Many hugs Valerie, I always admire how frank you are! I could see a lot of awareness.

Thank you for this update, I have been thinking of you and I miss seeing you in meetings. Cristina

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Valerie Brooke
Valerie Brooke
Jun 25
Replying to

Hi Cristina! I miss you also!! Thank you for keeping me in your thoughts!

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