The day I arrived on Fogo Island there was a polar bear loose in Joe Batt’s Arm. I had driven from St. Johns to Gander, caught the ferry from a port that was aptly named “Farewell,” and landed next to a lady named Emily who told me the news.
“It’s a big un. Walked right down the main street of town, he did.”
Emily was delighted I hadn’t heard. It was a rare treat to be the first bearer of a good piece of gossip on Fogo Island. We sat for a moment, as the ice sheets sloshed past the old iron boat, and considered the enormity of if it all.
“Where did it come from?”
“It comes on the ice.”
“Yeah. But which ice? I mean geographically.”
“Like I says, m’girl. It comes on the ice.”
Emily stared at me like I was someone who didn’t know much of anything so I decided I was out of my element and let things lie.
I followed the vague directions given to me by the ferry master and found myself at the nursing station of the old cottage hospital in Fogo Town. Fogo Town was the only “big town” on Fogo Island other than Joe Bat’s Arm. I was greeted by a hearty nurse named Martine.
“Are you the medical student from Canada, then?”
I had heard how some people on the islands still felt about Confederation so I didn’t state the obvious.
“Did you hear there is a polar bear in Joe Batt’s Arm?”
“I heard that on the ferry.”
Martine was disappointed that old Emily had stolen her prize but covered it well.
“Won’t the Ministry of Natural Resources come for it?” I asked.
I still had a certain faith in the government since I was from the mainland.
“Maybe. But you can die waiting for anyone from Ottawa to do something helpful to a Fogo Islander.”
“Yes, my girl?”
“Where did the polar bear come from?”
“It came from the ice.”
I knew not to ask the next question. I am a quick study.
I had come to Fogo Island to do my “rural family medicine” rotation and my supervisor was the island’s only doctor. Since Canadian graduates had not proven up to the task of a life on Fogo Island, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador had recruited from overseas. The island’s doctor was from South Africa and had also just arrived.
Our first patient was Margaret. She sat on the exam room chair and crossed her legs below the knee. She placed her purse firmly on her lap as if it was a toddler; something precious, and likely to escape.
Margaret was accompanied by her husband Ernie who sat with his elbows resting on his thighs.
The doctor gave the expected introductions and invited Margaret to tell her story. She spoke timidly of the usual thing: knee pain. Like all good doctors, he interrupted her within the minute.
“Do you have a history of arthritis or is this a new complaint?”
“Sorry doctor, what are you askin’ me, now?”
The doctor, reasonably assuming she was hard of hearing, spoke up and repeated his question. Margaret maintained her posture of enthusiastic attention but did not answer. Ernie pried his eyes from the floor and flashed me a look. Margaret followed suit. The Doctor was fresh out of ideas, so he did the same. I bellowed in the loudest voice that I could manage without sounding like a fool.
“Margaret, can you hear the doctor alright or do you need him to speak up more?”
Margaret and Ernie’s faces relaxed and it seemed I was on the right track. I made my diagnosis: deaf as posts, the two of them. Margaret responded in an even, quiet voice.
“I can ‘ear alright but I can’t say I knows what ‘e’s talkin ‘bout.”
The doctor’s clipped South African accent was too much for Margaret’s ears.
“He just wants to know when your knees started up.”
“Always bugs me when rain’s comin’ but mostly it’s alright like.”
Since I was only meant to be observing, I turned to the doctor to see what he wanted to ask next. He leaned in and whispered.
“What did she say?”
We plodded along like that until the appointment came to its natural end. Margaret sat rooted on her plastic chair and made no move to leave. Ernie snuck a furtive glance in my direction, seeking dismissal.
“Well Ernie. Since we come all the way ‘ere, why not tell the doctor about yer chest?”
Ernie ran his hands through his graying locks and mumbled, “It ain’t nothin’ we need to go and make a big thing about, mother.”
“’E’s Been out to the boat and getting all breathless-like.”
“Ain’t worth this fussing.”
“Got a problem with ‘is ‘eart but is too fool to tell anyone.”
A low hiss of air through pursed lips was Ernie’s only reply. Having reached the point of no return, Margaret pressed on.
“Don’t take ‘is word for nothing, I seen it. I knows when me ‘usband’s in pain, right? He won’t tell me nothin’. ‘E won’t tell you neither. That’s what e’s like. Might get the tests, though, if you tells ‘im to.”
Ernie took a fistful of hair in his hand and released it. He did not look up. Since Ernie’s reserves seemed low, I decided to cut out the middle man and asked him the questions directly.
“You having chest pain, Mr. Dwyer?”
“If you say so.”
“That’s what your wife thinks.”
“Margaret ‘as got a right to ‘er opinions.”
“Would you willing to do some tests?”
“Guess so. If you say so. But I ain’t goin’ up to St. Johns.”
At the big grocery store in the middle of the island, I was considering the merits of white versus whole wheat flour when Ernie came to stand close beside me.
“So, this African fellow, you figure ‘e’s alright?”
“Seems like a good person.”
“Probably. You think he knows much, though?”
“Knows more than me.”
“You never know what they teaches them over in Africa, right?”
“When the doctors come from other countries, they still have to pass all of the Canadian exams.”
“Makes sense, I guess. Nice of those shirts in Parliament to give us at least half a thought up here in Fogo.”
“If I got sick, I would trust his judgement.”
“Good enough then.”
Ernie turned abruptly, tipped a hat he wasn’t wearing, and disappeared down the aisle. He was ten minutes gone before I remembered to tell him that he had missed his follow up appointment at the clinic.
I was half way through my dinner when the call came they were bringing in Ernie. Martine was succinct.
“Sounds like a heart attack. Margaret says he’s pretty bad. Doesn’t want to wait for the ambulance so they are bringing him up in the truck. We’ll get the resus room ready.”
The doctor’s house was twenty feet away from the hospital, so we arrived before Ernie did.
The resus room was already fired up. The bright overhead light hummed and cast a sharp glow on the empty bed. The oxygen hissed though a face mask on the wall. The defibrillator was powered and on standby.
“You’ll be wanting a number nine then, Doctor? Old Ern is a big one.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m hoping we won’t need it.”
There did not seem much else to do so we took a stretcher out the main door and waited in the parking lot. The sound of a helicopter beat toward us and shook the casings of the stretcher.
I turned to Martine and asked, “They here for Ernie already?”
“Nope. I expect it’s the Ministry’s bird.”
The helicopter came in to view, stamped on the side with a Canadian flag and the words “Ministry of Natural Resources.” Below the helicopter hung a large bag which appeared to carry a heavy weight.
“Hunting season is over for our boys, I guess.”
It took a minute for the pin to drop so Martine continued.
“Government folks shot the Polar Bear in Joe Batt’s Arm.”
“Nope. Just knocked him out, I hear. Those boys developed a conscience maybe, after all these years.”
We watched the helicopter and its lonely cargo fly out over the choppy ice of the Atlantic until the sound of its beating blades were replaced by the scream of an old truck motor pushed to its limits. The Dwyers were on their way and everyone’s heart quickened to hear what a rush they were in. The truck pealed into the parking lot, and before the last lose stone of gravel had returned to the ground, Ernie’s two sons were out the doors.
“He’s in the front,” said one of them.
“He’s pretty near dead,” said the other.
Many hands worked together to pull Ernie out of the truck and he hit the stretcher with a thud. The first look told everyone what they needed to know. He was pale as the moon and his gaze had left us. Truer words had never been spoken. He was pretty near dead.
Under the unforgiving light of the resus room, Ernie ceased to be a person. Each of his limbs became someone else’s temporary possession; an IV in one arm, a blood pressure cuff on the other, hands pressing into his groin and neck, searching for a pulse. Martine slapped the pads on his chest like pancakes on a hot pan.
In that flurry of purposeful activity, Margaret slipped inside the room, quiet as a cat. I hugged the wall like a fugitive and made my way to stand beside her. She held her breath and took in the scene. Her eyes did not move from Ernie’s chest as she spoke to me.
“The boys figure he’s done for.”
I was too cowardly to respond directly. I thought the boys were probably right. I started to speak in a low whisper, like the commentator of a chess game.
“He’s likely had a heart attack and right now his blood pressure is too low. That bag is attached to the tube in his lungs and Martine is doing the breathing for him. They are giving him a medication though the I.V. and trying to break up the clot that caused the heart attack.”
I remembered Ernie’s questions from the grocery store and added.
“The doctor knows his stuff. He’s doing everything right.”
“Praise be we got us a good doctor from Africa and not one of those slick dandies up from Canada,” she said.
Through divine intervention, the doctor’s skill, or just luck, Ernie was spared. The clot buster did its work and by morning he was up, shaved, and waiting for his breakfast. I stopped in to see him on my way to morning report.
“How’s it going Mr. Dwyer?”
Ernie addressed his responses to the curtains.
“Bout as well as you can expect, my girl.”
“How’s the chest?”
“Bin though a spell, I guess.”
“Are you having any chest pain now?”
“Nothin’ to write home about.”
“Don’t worry, my girl. I’m done all my dyin’ for now.”
“The doctor wants to send you in the helicopter to St. John’s.”“That’s what I ‘ere.”
“You might need an operation. At the very least an angiogram.”
“I don’t imagine I need to bother with that now, girl. Doctors over the mainland got enough bodies to play with.”
“You are not out of the woods, Mr. Dwyer. This could happen again.”
“I knows it.”
“You need to go to St. Johns.”
“If I’m gonna go, it’ll be here on Fogo. I ain’t goin’ up to Canada to die.”
“I’d go to St. Johns if I were you, Mr. Dwyer.”
“I knows it, my girl.”
At that point I realized we were both talking to the curtains.
“I ‘eard the girls on the phone last night sayin’ young Emily Gurt wants to come back ‘ome but there ain’t no room for ‘er in the ‘ospital. Say she’s some bad and they got nothing else for ‘er in St. John’s.”
“We’ll get her back in a few days, once some people clear out.”
“Bring ‘er back as soon as you can, my girl. When she gets ‘ere I’ll go ‘ome.”
“You are the last person in this hospital we want to send home. You almost died last night.”
“You ain’t got to send me ‘ome, my girl. I’m leaving on my own steam. I’ll stay till she gets ‘ere and not a minute longer.”
“But . . .”
“I won’t ‘ear it, my girl. I told you what I mean to do.”
Ernie gently folded his hands in his lap and closed his eyes. The conversation was over.
The doctor, the nurses, and Margaret all tried their best to talk Ernie out of leaving, but his decision was firm. Emily Gurt came in on the four-thirty ferry and ten minutes before her ambulance arrived at the hospital doors, Ernie’s sons drove over to pick him up. I watched their truck cruise into the parking lot and reflected on how much slower their entry was as compared to the previous evening. The older son made one last stab at it.
“You sure this is what you want, Dad?”
“Did you bring the truck?”
“Well, we didn’t walk here.”
“Best be off then.”
The second son said nothing. He just let his breath hiss slowly though his teeth.
A week later, I stood on the bow of the Fogo Island ferry and watched the federal government’s icebreaker lead us to shore. Large sheets of ice were temporarily broken and slid on top of one another to make room for the unstoppable ship. A few folks came out to get an eyeful of the powerful beast.
“That’s the Government for you. Breaking everything apart for our own good.”
Everyone had a good laugh about that and then went back inside the boat to get hot chocolate. I found a place in the back cabin and watched the trail that the ferry left in the frozen ocean as it made its way to “Canada.” The floating islands of ice were already starting to pack back together behind us. The frozen, ragged edges found each other, and slowly fused into same solid mass they had been before the ship had passed. There were only the lines between them to say that they had ever been separated.
Looking at the scene before me, I was reminded of my last conversation with old Ernie. We had been in his hospital room waiting for his sons to arrive. I had been reviewing his discharge plan while he had listened in polite silence. Suddenly, I had been struck with an inspiration.
“Hey Mr. Dwyer, did you hear they caught that polar bear up in Joe Batt’s Arm?”
“Did they, now? Well that’s some news.”
It was most animated I had ever seen him and I felt happy to have been the first to tell him.
“Shot him with a tranquillizer and flew him out over the ocean.”
Ernie’s eyes had become distant then. He had stared past the curtains and out over the icy harbor.
“Poor Bugger. Must of got lost. Was probably just trying to get back home.”
“What’s that, my girl?”
“When the government flew off with the polar bear, where did they take it?”
“They takes it home my girl, god willing.”
“But home to where?”
For a moment Ernie let the curtains fend for themselves and looked at me straight on. His eyes were as cold and blue as the sea that had made them.
“They takes it back to the ice.”