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Called to Ocracoke

Feb 2, 2016 | OBX Medicine, Volunteer Medicine

Dr. John KihmI remember.  Do you remember the first time you set your eyes on the North Carolina coast?  From across Hatteras Inlet, the very first moment I saw Ocracoke (even before the Hatteras ferry boat docked at Ocracoke’s north shore), I knew I would be back.  My travels to Ocracoke evolved from simple tent-camping at the National Park campgrounds, just over the dune from the sea.  What started as an away medical school rotation in Richmond unfurled into a fulfilling life’s experience.

In the fourth and final year of medical school, I did an away cardiology rotation at Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, VA.  Following that month, I snuck a few days southbound, down the outer banks, to see what was there.  It would be my destiny. I was called to Ocracoke.

On a breathtakingly beautiful September morning I stood at the bow of that Hatteras ferry. Waves glimmered and gulls laughed, and I said to myself, “This IS the place.”  The wind blew hard enough to hide the mosquitoes, and the sun shone enough to make the cold camp shower seem warm.  The year, 1984, could have been yesterday.

North Carolina beckoned me in 1987 to a special fellowship in general internal medicine at Duke.  My favorite place to go in those days was back to Ocracoke, where I camped at every opportunity.  Life spins an interesting story, and exactly ten years later, in 1997, I was called to serve the remote island residents as a physician.

Having a habit of turning enchanting ideas into reality, and wondering what it would be like to actually be a doctor on Ocracoke, my curiosity led me to the Ocracoke Health Center one Fall Saturday morning, during a camping trip.  The office was closed, but I knocked on the front door. From way back in the office, a voice called out:  “Come on in!”

Ken was a Physician’s Assistant, then the sole provider for Ocracoke.  We chatted.  “Holy cow,” I thought, how does he do it?  On call 24/7, nowhere to escape, here on Saturday, “How does he do it?

I offered to cover for him if he ever wanted to get away.   Sure enough a couple months later he called me, and, “Could you come for a week in March?”  Of course I could, along with my wife and three tiny children.

That first shift at Ocracoke was life-changing.  The people were nice, the weather was good, the pace was slow and even.  All the excitement of a new challenge on a beautiful ocean island made the work invite me back, time and time again.

Truth be told, I learned to fly so that I could cover Ocracoke while maintaining my full time Durham practice.  I did my first flight solo the same year I started on Ocracoke. One beautiful story introduces the next.  180+ missions later, I still fly to Ocracoke to visit and see patients.  I enjoy every flight now as much as my first flight, just down the beach from where aviation was born over 100 years before.  Every sunset flying home to Durham is more spectacular than the one before it.

Most of all, I hoped to make a difference in the lives of those gracious Ocracokers on the island I that I love.  My patients there say I have made a difference.  I am grateful for each moment I have been given.

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Priority Medicine
John. T. Kihm, M.D., F.A.C.P.

3811 N. Roxboro Road – Suite B
Durham, NC 27704


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