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Ocracoke Medicine, Getting There

Dec 15, 2015 | OBX Medicine, Volunteer Medicine

Practicing medicine on Ocracoke Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, has been a challenging, fascinating, and rewarding journey. One part of that journey is the literal journey to and from Ocracoke. My trips to Ocracoke began 26 years ago, at first simply visiting the island. Then 16 years ago my call to the island and its people grew and I began caring for patients on Ocracoke. Where there is a will, and God is willing, there is a way.

For me, the island, its people and its culture were all loves at first site. As with many Ocracoke visitors, my first 15 years involved driving to the ferry, crossing, then camping at the campground. I loved all of that. As my interest in Ocracoke expanded, I wondered what it would be like to see patients and get to know the Ocracoke people and culture more deeply. I began volunteering to cover the island in 1997. I liked spending time at the Ocracoke Health Center, and decided I would continue my island trek while continuing my Durham practice.

The 7 hour car/ferry trips, while both fun and beautiful, would be too long to do and not take time from my Durham practice. Traversing the piedmont, the coastal plains, the salt marsh, and then finally, the outer banks by car is wonderful! But weekend 14 hour round trip car trips every month while maintaining my Durham practice aren’t practical. Enter aviation.

about-usI learned to fly in order to do the Ocracoke practice. The one hour flight, each way, would make the island practice possible. The challenges of aviation included learning to fly, learning to fly on instruments, weather flying, night flying, unique island bugaboos—the challenge, and fun list—is endless.

My flying lessons started in November, 1997, and continued for about 14 months. Through the winter I took 2 lessons a week, each one early in the morning before work. Wow was it cold! Then on to the instrument rating by the next January. At first the lessons were scary—well, maybe all of them were, a little. But all the precision, crosswind, weather and night lessons come in handy for flying to Ocracoke.

I take off from Person County Airport, then climb to 9,000-12,000 feet, above the clouds. I overfly Franklin County, Rocky Mount, Pitt-Greenville, Little Washington, the Pamlico Sound, then Ocracoke Village, before lining up over the beach for landing. The views can only be described as exhilarating. I know firsthand what the Wright brothers experienced on the outer banks of our beautiful state, and I am thankful.

Weather may include: strong crosswinds on landing, thunderstorms to fly around, rarely fog, low clouds, rain/ice, and turbulence. Usually these are minor issues, but if bad enough, this would lead to a cancelled trip or turning around and just going on home without ever landing. In the summer sometimes I have to take off in a hurry to beat an afternoon thunderstorm to the airport!

Island curiosities included dodging a flock of seagulls, who initially parked on the runway but decided all at once to take off in my path, and landing on the left half of the runway due to a long puddle on the right side. Worst of all are the mosquitoes. I learned to apply mosquito repellant before getting out of the plane. Everything said about those bugs is true, and then some!

Yes, life itself is a journey. Callings happen. Listen to them. I followed my dreams, giving praise for the good and seemingly bad. On the Ocracoke travel journey I have met challenges, seen beautiful things, met a kind and wonderful people, and best of all, helped a few along the way.

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

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

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