Wednesday, 1 December 2021

The joys and woes of being a rural x-ray technologist

The fog is thick and dense. It's still dark outside, and with the impenetrable fog I can see nothing but a white wall surrounding me. Visibility? What visibility? I'm crawling at a speed of less than 50km/h, hoping the fog will clear at some point. Even though I've left two hours early, I may be late if I have to drive the entire 108 kilometers at this snail's pace. 

BAM!

I hit the brakes, remembering at the last split second not to slam them down too hard in case of ice. A deer jumped right in front of my car, literally out of nowhere. I didn't hit it. Before I have time to breathe a sigh of relief, I catch movement to my left out of the corner of my eye - another deer. Its head appears like an apparition in my side window, then it's gone again. I keep driving on autopilot, trying to process what just happened: did a deer almost hit me - right after I almost hit another deer? What the hell?!

It takes a while for my wildly beating heart to calm down. As I am winding my way up the mountain I leave the fog behind, rising above it like a phoenix out of the ashes into the rising sun. Beautiful. I see more deer along the way, but fortunately none of them are on the road.  

For the past two years I've jokingly called myself a "travelling x-ray technologist" because I'm on the road between 10 and 20 days every month to travel to various rural hospitals. I love it; it gives me variety, the pleasure of exploring small towns, and when I go outside during lunch I'm in nature right away. I love small town people, especially the old cowboys and tough old ladies - they have the best stories!

Plus, I love the drives. I've seen a mama bear with her cub just a few weeks ago; shared the road with wild sheep and half-wild horses; drove right along bald eagles as they were soaring above the river, both of us reveling in our freedom. I've watched cowboys on horseback herding cattle, saw a calf being born last spring, and have driven towards rainbows more than once. 

The drives are one of the things I love the most about my job - unless they get scary.  

Two winters ago I got stuck in a snowstorm on top of the mountain in the middle of the night that was so severe, I was blind. I literally couldn't see the road, so I put my hazards on and inched my way forward, terrified that I might slide off the road into the ditch, or worse, down a cliff. Every time a car came I was scared that it may not see me and hit me - I felt like a sitting duck. I kept muttering to myself "it's okay, you're okay, everything is okay", but when I finally arrived home hours later I dissolved into tears. 

There have been days where the wind was so violent it felt like a mob of angry soccer fans was trying to push my car over. Other days the entire so-called "highway" is iced over like an ice rink, making me wish I could attach blades over my tires and skate home.

Thankfully those drives are few and far between, and most of the time I have the best commute I can imagine.  

I started this gig in the fall of 2019, and everything was going great. I was so excited that I had finally found my niche! I was loving the travelling, eating in small diners, getting take-out Chinese from a surprisingly excellent place in a tiny town, wandering the streets with their quaint Christmas decorations in the winter and flower displays in the summer. At night I would sit in my staff residence, typing on my laptop, reading books or watching Netflix, while awaiting getting called back to the hospital. 

I walked a lot, slept soundly, and overall enjoyed myself tremendously. 

Until June 30th of this year.
That's the day when Lytton burnt down. Lytton was one of my rural hospitals, and it was flattened by a raging fire that devoured most of the village, including the entire hospital. I was completely shocked. 

I had stayed upstairs of the hospital in the department provided for staff many times. I watched all of Tiger King in that cozy apartment, which I will forever associate with the beginning of lockdown; I had Lily, my corgi, with me every time I stayed there; I started writing my novel there.

I walked all over the village dozens of times. I had breakfast in the diner, and regularly bought California rolls with spicy sauce from the local grocery store that I would eat in the small, leafy courtyard off the hospital building.  
My friend and I received both of our Covid-shots in Lytton.  
May 5, 2021 after our second shot. We were so excited. 

It was a special place. And it was gone. Just like that.

After the Lytton fire I was very unsettled. Nothing felt safe; if one village could burn down within minutes, who said that another one wouldn't follow? It kept being hot and dry, and the worst part: the fire kept burning. 

Not only did it keep burning, but it kept multiplying. Within weeks there were hundreds of fires. Soon, there were thousands. That was just in our province; there were many more in other provinces, and even more in other countries. In my memory, the summer of 2021 will always be the summer where the world burnt. 
Lytton hospital burning, June 30, 2021
Merritt Coalmont Mine burning August 15, 2021

Me and my other hospitals were soon impacted again. Ashcroft and Merritt hospitals were both on evacuation alerts because they were surrounded by fire. The air in Ashcroft was smoky for weeks; we had lots of patients come in who suffered from the poor air quality. One of the nurses who comes from out of town came for her block of shifts once, experienced the terrible air quality that wreaked havoc on her asthma, and hasn't been back since. 

Ashcroft in August 2021

I never knew in the morning if my roads to work would still be open; it changed rapidly day-by-day. Checking drivebc became part of my daily routine. (I have yet to shake the habit; even now I check it every time before I leave for work.)

When the roads were open, I frequently drove past smoking or burning trees. 
You never knew what you would find from one day to another. 

On August 15th, we were ordered to evacuate as well. Since our animals were impossible to evacuate on short notice, we decided to stay. We were amongst the lucky ones who weren't touched by the fire. 
Five days later, the order was lifted, and our neighbours returned. 

Curiously, after everybody returned, we had the Structure Protection Unit (SPU) in our neighbourhood for a full weekend. They were measuring, assessing, putting sprinklers on people's houses, putting up bladders - all after the fact. Was it in preparation of an even larger disaster looming just around the corner we didn't know about? Or in preparation of future disasters? We didn't know. Nobody told us.
 
It felt equally reassuring and unsettling. My takeaway from it was that "they" - the authorities, politicians, scientists, whoever had a voice at the time - were as freaked out as we were. 
Our own bladder for a bit over a week. When they took it away we figured we were either safe - or fucked. 

I couldn't wait for that summer to be over. And that's saying something, since I love summer. I live for those hot, endless summer days, spent in rivers and lakes and my hammock, enjoying the lingering warmth of a hot-summers-day late at night. 

But in the late summer of 2021, I wanted fall to arrive STAT, preferably with lots of rain. 
Fall came.
And with it, rain.
 
But before that happened, for a brief time, I drove through the devastated landscape of my former paradise, believing it was all over and I could now grieve for what had been lost. 
I drove through black skinny stumps; trees that still looked liked trees but had lost all their needles and turned fiery red; hills that were blackened and bare, but where, after a few short weeks, I could detect a hint of green breaking through the earth. 
I thought we had finally left those awful, terrifying months of heat, unstoppable fires and utter destruction behind us.

We did. 
And then the next tragedy hit.  

On November 15, a Monday, I left for work shortly before 7am, as usual. It had been a rainy weekend, and I had stayed off my phone for an entire day. Rich and I had been watching TV all day Sunday, and I was so enthralled that I not only ignored the outside world, but also managed to forget about my phone for once, which was rare. 

I noticed the rain, but didn't think much about it. After all, I had grown up with rain, lived in the rainy Lower Mainland for 13 years - what was a bit of extra rain here? After the oppressively dry summer, I was sure it was a good thing. A deposit towards the next dry summer, right?

As I was driving along the Nicola river that rainy Monday morning, I noticed that it was as high as it only ever is during the snow melt in the spring. 'Shit, it must have rained a lot', I was thinking, but I wasn't worried. I did take notice of a few trucks parked by the road a little while later, which was highly unusual at this time of day. I was usually alone on this road. I saw that there was a tiny bit of water on the road that had seeped in from the river, but I still wasn't worried. Just a lot of rain - it never lasted long around here. 

When I arrived at work, I was rudely yanked out of my happy, oblivious bubble. 

"Merritt is flooding!" were the words I was greeted with. "Are you okay?" I was disorientated. What? What?? My town was flooding? How did I not know that? Were they for real?

My worried co-workers quickly filled my dumb-ass-self in. The "tiny bit of water on the road" was a pale imitation of what was happening just a few kilometres away from home.

Merritt had flooded. The waste treatment plant was out of commission. The drinking water was contaminated. All 7,000+ residents of Merritt were evacuated immediately. 
The long-term care residents were being evacuated. 
The hospital patients were evacuated. 
Everything was to be shut down as soon as possible. 

As flabbergasted as I was by all of this, it wasn't even the worst of it. 
The highways were shutting down one by one. 
Entire bridges were washed away. 
Mud slides took away highway, bridges - and people. 
In the hours and days that followed we would hear horrifying stories of cars being engulfed by mud slides - with people still inside. 
We would learn of thousands of horses, cattle, chickens, and other livestock being drowned. 
We would see footage of people's houses being swept away by the roiling, dirty-brown water - people who were our friends, neighbours, and co-workers. 

But before I knew all that, I was over 100 km away from my home, with the roads that separated me from my loved ones rapidly closing. "I'm going home," I told them at 11am, and not one person stopped me. On the contrary, they urged me to "Go! Be careful! Text us when you get home!"
I promised I would, and I left.

It still seemed surreal, because even though it was raining slightly in Ashcroft, everything looked fine. The people looked calm, just going about their normal business on a Monday morning. I was still in my happy bubble from the weekend, and didn't know if maybe my co-workers were exaggerating. How bad could it be just a 100 kilometres away from here? But I had told them I was going home, so I'd better do just that. Worst case I would tell them tomorrow that the Internet had exaggerated wildly, as per usual.

Having driven past the Nicola river only 4 hours before, I was sure I would be okay to drive back the same way. So I set off that way.

I had no idea about the severity of the situation. 
There was a roadblock on the intersection of highway 1 and highway 8. Highway 1 was closed, due to a bridge collapsing; nobody stopped me as I was turning left onto highway 8. 

When I crossed the first bridge a couple of minutes into highway 8, I started to feel uneasy. The river was high, wild, and fast. It looked unbridled; it looked mean. 
I drove over it, breathing a sigh of relief when I made it over. 

I knew there were more bridges to come, but I had suddenly developed a heretofore unknown ability to live in the moment. I didn't worry about what was to come; I was simply focused on the stretch of road right ahead of me. 

The river underneath the next bridge a few minutes later looked just as menacing; still, I kept on going. All I was focused on now was that I was about 35-40 minutes away from home, and I wanted to make it there as quickly as possible. Turning around wasn't appealing, because it would take 3 times as long.

But it got scarier with every minute. 
Water from the river was washing onto the highway where it had been many feet away just a few hours before. 
Then I saw this:

I drove towards this huge, jagged piece of road missing, and I was beyond shocked. You know what I did? I still can't believe it. Instead of stopping and thinking, which is what I should have done - I just kept on driving. I was in denial. I was thinking: This isn't real. This can't be real. This isn't happening. 
And I honestly believed that. I truly didn't think that I could actually fall through the road and be swept away. 

Until approximately 7 minutes later, when I encountered this:

Not only was my side of the road gone, the other side was littered with debris and the water was lapping all the way over it. Still, in my state of denial, I stopped, got out, and briefly pondered how hard it would be to move all the drift wood to the side and keep on going. I was still focused on the one goal to get home as quickly as possible, and home was on the other side of the flooded road. 

Luckily, there was a guy from the highway department on the other side (the truck you see in the picture), and he basically told me to turn around and get the hell out of there. 

I obeyed. And oh my fucking god, how lucky I am that I did.
Highway 8 was destroyed in 18 sections that day. I may have been one of the last people who drove on it.
People have lost their land, their homes, or the access to their homes - probably for years. 
The highway will be closed for years.

Nobody knows yet what's going to happen, because we are still in the thick of it. As I am writing this we are still in the midst of a flood warning. Another atmospheric river is about to hit, and may impact our area. Many residents of Merritt have not been allowed to return yet, 16 days after the evacuation. 

The hospital was closed for 2 weeks and opened just 3 days ago for a few hours every day, for emergencies only. 

So many people have lost so much. My heart keeps breaking for them. But how many times can it break? There isn't an infinite amount available. At some point, it will have broken for the last time. And it needs time to heal in between - time we haven't had yet. 

My world, as an x-ray technologist and as a person, hasn't felt safe since June 30 of this year. 
I lost a hospital, my preferred route to work, and my sense of safety. 
Anything could happen at anytime. 

With the ongoing Covid-pandemic and everything else happening, will I ever feel safe again?
Only time will tell. 





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4 comments

  1. You are so lucky to have made it through that drive! I pray that the winter weather is not this harsh and you all can catch a break.
    Be safe.

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    Replies
    1. It's been such a tumultuous year of extremes, it would be lovely if things would calm down for a while!
      Stay safe as well Mary!

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  2. I'm from the US. I know you and Rich are from Germany. Here, we take PTSD seriously, sometimes, admittedly, people use it as an excuse. But when you endure one scary, potentially life threatening situation after another in a short period of time, it's something to worry about. It can really affect your stress levels in the future to situations that another person might not react the same way. I think it's totally worth talking about with a therapist. Better to get an understanding of it sooner, than later. Best wishes to you Miriam. - Karen

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    Replies
    1. Dear Karen,
      I am in therapy, and it helps a lot. This has been an immensely stressful year, I'm so glad it's almost over! I always feel more optimistic at the beginning of a new year for the fresh start it represents, and I'm hopeful that 2022 will be better. I mean, it can only go up from here, right?

      Delete

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