Relay For Life
The Alaskan winter had shown itself to be unusually harsh the year of 1925. The temperatures hung at 50 degrees below zero on this particular day, January 27, as a high-pressure storm front was moving in from the Arctic. A diphtheria epidemic had stricken a small town in the midst of the storm, and many patients had already died.
“Mama?” A little girl’s feeble voice whispered.
“I am here, Ranahta.” Mama walked back to the hospital bed from the window where she had been standing. She had spent the morning peering through the driving snow for any sign of the dogsled team. She took Ranahta’s hand in hers and found her sound asleep again. Mama dabbed a cool cloth on the girl’s feverish forehead. The dogs had been sent out just this morning on a relay for the diphtheria serum. Already 28 children had died of the disease in this very room. “Please, Lord,” Mama begged, “please do not let Ranahta be the 29th.”
The little hospital room in Nome, Alaska, was chilled from the blustering winds outside, which were let in through the cracks under the doors. Mama looked longingly at the vials of diphtheria serum lined up in a cabinet on the wall across from Ranahta’s bed. The doctor had said they were expired and would only weaken a patient further if the antitoxin was administered. Mama walked back to the window again to watch for the dogs even though they were not expected back for at least another five days.
Six hundred sixty-seven miles away the relay for the serum had begun in Nenana, another Alaskan town also being ravaged by the storm. The snow whipped around the brave musher and his dogs. The blizzard had moved in from the Arctic, increasing in its intensity as it went, and the temperature was still dropping. The sled team had left early in the morning with the box of serum.
“Kinda strange how Balto sniffed at the box so long. Almost like he was smelling out a new kind of animal,” Gun thought to himself. Suddenly, he felt a sharp sting on his cheek as a tether broke loose and whipped through the air. The precious serum it was holding was catapulted out of the sled into the growing snow drifts.
“Balto! Balto! Stop!” Gun yelled through the blizzard. The musher knew Balto could not hear him. He couldn’t even hear himself above the gales of wind. Gun anchored the brake to slow the dogs to a halt and stepped off the sled, feeling through the blizzard for his team. The snow was so thick he could not even see the dogs that were tied closest to his sled! Gun found the gang lead and followed it to the first set of dogs, checking each one down the line carefully for frostbite or other injuries. After taking extra measures to protect the dogs from the elements he was comforted that his dogs were all okay, but what about the serum? Many more men, women, and children would die without the antitoxin, and the diphtheria epidemic would spread. A search may prove deadly to him and the team; if he let go of the dog’s line it may mean that they all would most likely die in the blizzard. Then Gun got an idea. “Dogs have an excellent sense of smell,” he thought to himself. “And Balto was quite curious about the box before we left. Perhaps he can smell it out.” “Balto.” He bent down and spoke above the wind in the dog’s ear. “Balto, find the box.” Gun knew it was a long shot but with prayer and faith, and Balto’s keen senses, there was hope. Balto’s ears pricked up and, to Gun’s surprise, he lowered his head to the snow.
After 20 minutes of searching, Gun became quite anxious. If the team was not kept moving, the possibility of their freezing to death was very high. The temperature was dropping further now as the storm raged on. But still Balto, with the team in tow, was sniffing through the white-out. By now, Gun had tied himself to the dogs, since his hands were turning black with frostbite and he could not grasp the line or even move his fingers.
Suddenly Balto stopped. Gun bent down and felt in the snow around Balto. His hand hit something hard at his dog’s front paws! Praise God! It was the box! The serum vials were still intact. Not one had broken! Lifting the box, Gun carefully felt his way back to the sled and tied the serum tightly. And giving thanks to God, they continued the trek back to Nome.
“Nome to Nenana, come in, Nenana.” Static rasped over the little radio in the hospital office. “Come in, Nenana.” Still only static. Dr. Welch clicked the radio off and slumped back in his chair. It had been three days since they had any contact with the other town, and four since Nenana had heard from the relay team. The doctor looked out the window where the snow was still whipping by the unrelenting gales. The thermometer he had hung outside his window had long since been blown off the hinges, but one need only step outside to know that survival in the storm would be unlikely. Rubbing his worry-wrinkled forehead, he sent a silent prayer for the safety of the sledders and the deliverance of the precious medication.
“Dr. Welch! Dr. Welch!” Mama yelled bursting through the door of the doctor’s office.
Startled, the plump old man jumped out of his seat, giving the woman a quizzical look. “Ma’am?”
“Oh, doctor, come quickly!” Mama ran back out of the room down the hall.
“Oh dear,” the old man thought to himself. “The child must have taken a bad turn.” He exited his office and turned down the hall to see a large crowd hovering around the hospital entrance. One man yelled for hot water to be brought. Dr Welch grabbed a bucket and fetched the water. The man grabbed the bucket and ran outside with it. Puzzled, Dr Welch looked on.
Gun and his faithful team of dogs had just pulled in front of the hospital. The musher was frozen to his sled and delirious with fever. The man from the crowd dumped the hot water over Gun’s hands and pried them loose from the sled. Several more men ran out and carried Gun to a warm bed in the hospital where a couple of the women ministered to the sick man. Two other men attended to the dog team. The serum was brought inside to thaw while Dr. Welch examined Gun to make sure he would be okay. The dogs greedily ate the fresh fish and water set out for them by their master’s bed.
Mama knelt by the bed of her sleeping child and gave thanks to God for Gun, who safely delivered the medicine for her daughter and the other children. “And thank you, God, for the bravery and strength of the dogs that trekked through the blinding snow. Thank you for guiding them home.”
Alicia A. Freedman