One Woman’s Life in Discovery

Nancy E. Sydnam

Nancy E. Sydnam

Physician, pilot, poet, and musician Nancy Elliott Sydnam lives in discovery every day. Originally from Washington State, she spent the last 20 years of her career serving the health care needs of Native villagers in some of the most remote parts of Alaska, applying her medical knowledge and unstoppable ingenuity in situations where conditions were often bleak and resources minimal. She was 81 when she retired. (Read more)

The following mini-movie, narrated by Nancy, explores the idea of listening outside of herself and facing the world with optimism, purpose, and intention to learn every day. It is the first of many examples that we will be sharing of how to Live in Discovery.

Nancy Sydnam’s book, Sideways Rain (Hardscratch Press, 2012), recounts her years of adventure, wonder, and close calls as an itinerant doctor in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. It is almost impossible to understand from a small excerpt, but this short passage provides a glimpse into the life and perspectives of this amazing woman.

“Bach Violin Concerto in E” with Mutter is just right. (Oh, thank you Harold Borofsky for the wonders you have taped for me.) I have had a whole day of feeling incompetent for these huge tasks. Alexay is still in cardiac failure. His oxygen saturations are OK, but he hasn’t lost any fluid pounds and still looks awful. We are out of IV Lasix. The weather bad so no flights. I have him on oral Lasix and started Prednisone today. Meanwhile, the gravida three, VBAC, is in early labor and due in 2 1/2 weeks. The danger is that if allowed to labor she may split her previous uterine scar and bleed to death in minutes. She looked at me with big eyes this afternoon and said, “I’m afraid to die.” I can do as well as anyone out here to keep that from happening, but we have no blood. (Read more)



















(About Nancy Sydnam–continued)

When Nancy first applied to medical school in the early 1950s, she was strongly discouraged from becoming a doctor because she was a woman. Fortunately, she found the support she needed at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel Medical College of Medicine) and graduated in 1954. She credits the fine teachers there for the exceptional training she received in the depth and breadth of skills she would need to compete in a male-dominated profession and to treat patients far removed from standard medical facilities. The values she learned served her well. “They taught me that I wasn’t treating a broken leg,” she says, “I was treating a person with a broken leg.”

Nancy’s interests range from playing the cello, piloting airplanes, training dogs, and hunting ducks to reading, writing, woodworking, and exploring nature. Now in her ninetieth decade and still a child at heart, Nancy remains intensely curious and loves to learn. She lives in gratitude and with compassion, seeing possibility in every challenge, and thriving in the joys of discovery.

Excerpt continued

This seems to match the obstetrical danger I faced one summer while working in Kenya. I was doing a caesarean section under ether anesthesia when the lights went out. They did not have a standby generator so casually lit kerosene lamps! Ether is extremely volatile, and I was sure the patient and the rest of us would be blown sky high! It didn’t happen and I was relieved but have never forgotten the episode. I hoped my VBAC would fare as well.

A disaster during the night was that the husband of one of the village aides drank over the weekend and is in the clink for sexual assault–big fight. It makes me ill. I ache for his family.

I also cared for a serious nosebleed (epistaxis), left nare. I saw the site but we have no silver nitrite that I can find to cauterize it. I packed it with gauze and added neosynephrine and sent him off. He was back in an hour with blood pouring from his right nare. Why? His blood pressure was normal. Too much aspirin? Who knows. I will never forget my first tough epistaxis–it is no laughing matter! I packed the right side as well and hope it stops. He is such a nice man. And he doesn’t want me to have to come out at night and that worries me. In my mind, I am threading string into his posterior nasopharynx to tie onto a big wad to block it off. Maybe I should have done that to begin with.

There is more, but I don’t feel like chronicling it here. Then my relief due in here tomorrow is stuck in Adak in a snowstorm and may not get here on the 8th. I called my friend Karen to cry on her shoulder. She was wonderful as usual–appropriately concerned, she didn’t try to solve my problems (how could she?)–just there. She doesn’t leave for Halibut Cove until Friday so if I get in Thursday she will pick me up. I look forward to that.  (pages 184-5)