Thursday, August 10, 2017

The pleasures and perils of isolation

One thing that's wonderful about our cabin on Saturna Island is the sense of being alone at the top of the world. When we go up there for a weekend we see only a few hikers along the Brown Ridge Trail and if we're lucky the herd of feral goats that lives up there. But the isolation of the spot also comes with risk--as we learned this weekend.

We gathered up at the cabin on Saturday afternoon with plans for dinner together, with my brother and his wife and daughter and their two cats, plus my sister and her dog Toby. After a pleasant walk along the ridge we ate barbecued salmon and corn and Greek salad, drank wine, and then enjoyed a desert of chocolate brownies from a Victoria bakery.

My sister Jan, who is allergic to almonds took one bite of a brownie and immediately realized that it contained almond flour. Usually when this happens Jan disappears for a while to force herself to vomit up the offending food, but this time she was unable to get that to happen. This time the reaction was much worse than she's ever experienced before and we became alarmed when her tongue and lips swelled and she became short of breath. That's when my brother called Saturna's volunteer ambulance crew.

There is no resident doctor on the island so the ambulance crew and a helicopter off the island is the only recourse in a medical emergency. It's at least a half-hour drive up to the top of the ridge. It was a long half hour waiting, and we were fortunate that when the ambulance arrived they came with a doctor from West Vancouver who happened to be visiting on the island.  The volunteer ambulance coordinator knew that this doctor was on the island and arranged for her to attend with the ambulance. (It's a small island!)

The doctor was able to immediately give Jan a life-saving injection so her airway wouldn't close. Oxygen was started and eventually an IV. They couldn't get the helicopter to the island because it was busy on another call so they called out the Ambulance boat from Victoria. After about an hour when she was starting to stabilize the ambulance bumped its way down the rutted road to the dock. This had taken more than two hours. Then we waited for the ambulance boat to arrive. The BC marine ambulance service serves all the gulf islands and remote coastal communities on the south end of Vancouver Island. It's has all the equipment and medics that a regular ambulance carries and it's a very fast little boat.

Here's Jan on a stretcher being loaded into the ambulance boat.  I was able to accompany Jan on the trip to a private dock at Swartz Bay  where we were met by an ambulance from Victoria that took us to the nearest hospital. By then the drugs had stopped the allergic reaction and Jan was starting to feel better. We waited a while to be checked out at the hospital but by then the emergency was over.

In all it took about four and a half hours to get to the hospital, with the help of at least six volunteers from Saturna plus the boat crew and the ambulance on the other side.  It was remarkable how professional and kind everyone was. Not a single person asked Jan why she didn't carry an epi-pen with a known allergy. The answer was that she had been able to manage the reaction herself until this time.  By the way, she'll be carrying one from now on.

So our family dinner turned into quite another experience, one where we saw how people in an isolated community can work together in an emergency. I am so grateful for the volunteer ambulance crew on Saturna and the doctor who just happened to be able to come up the hill with them. And I can't say enough about the professionalism and kindness of all staff on the marine ambulance.  We are going to make sure there is an Epi-pen always there at the cabin.