Life through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder begins with tales of John's childhood adventures in upstate New York, summers at camp and then working outdoors as a teen. This first excerpt is from John's time at Amherst. 

From Chapter 4 | Amherst

A week after my humiliating introduction to freshman football, classes began. The marquee course, part of the mandatory core curriculum, a rite of passage for incoming freshmen, was English Composition 1, but everyone called it just “English 1.” The course was all about writing or rather thinking and writing. We were asked to write three two-page papers a week. The assignments were rather obtuse—one three-week segment was devoted to “exploring the difference between correct and ‘correct’” in a variety of situations. Confused? So were we.

Part of what made the agony special was that it was shared by the entire class, every single freshman. We would collectively rack our brains trying to think of something, anything, cogent to write about the assignment. We would pace the halls, often through the night, and finally settle in at our Smith-Corona typewriters with little time to spare and, despite all the pacing, nothing much to say. The session after our first submission, Professor Townsend strode into the room carrying a stack of paper and set it down on the desk at the front of the room.

“I want to commend you,” he said, tapping his finger on the pile of papers. “There are 25 students in this class and I received 25 perfect themes.” We all breathed a sigh of relief, and then, with little ceremony, he picked up the stack of papers and dumped it in the wastebasket by the desk. “Let’s see if you can do better next time. Class dismissed.”

The criticism that rained on us over the course of the semester was unrelenting and unmerciful, with comments in the margin like “Huh?” or “No” or, best of all, “Mayonnaise.” Like soldiers in boot camp, it seemed we needed to be broken before we could be fixed. But after some threshold, some accumulated dose of mayonnaise, after enough wallowing in the goo, we began to understand the notion of clarity, of getting it straight in the brain and transporting that essence to the printed page. I passed English 1 and, well into English 2, I began to get comments like “OK,” “Not bad,” and ultimately, miraculously, “I see” and even “Interesting.” And in the end, of all the courses I took in college and medical school, all the preparation for a career in academic medicine, none was more important than English 1-2.

* * * * *

During John's undergrad years at Amherst he decided to study medicine, which he did at the University of Rochester. In 1971 he came to Portland for his internship, followed by his residency in internal medicine at OHSU. The following tale is from day one of this residency.

From Chapter 10 | Internship and a Baby

My first rotation as a resident was at Good Samaritan Hospital. My first night on call, I was notified by the hospital operator that I was needed immediately in the Obstetrics suite.

“Are you sure you’ve got the right doctor?” I asked her. “I’m a medicine resident.”

“Well, we double-checked the coverage chart and your name came up,” she replied. “The private attending physician is on his way but won’t be there for at least half an hour. The OB resident is doing a C-section with the obstetrician on call. Both surgical residents are in the OR with a trauma patient, and that leaves you, Dr. Fitchen. I’m just following protocol.”

“Well … okay,” I said. “But how do I get there? Where’s the delivery room?”

I’d never been there. She gave me directions and I hustled off, wondering what would come my way, and trying to remember what I had done when I had delivered a baby, under close supervision, as a third-year medical student. I raced through the hospital and up four flights of stairs, then turned into the OB suite and peered down the hall.

A clutch of nurses was gathered outside the door to one of the delivery rooms at the far end of the hall—never a good sign. I plowed through and into the room. I ripped off my stethoscope and tossed it (inadvertently) onto a tray of sterilized instruments, and then managed to stick my thumb into the little finger end of the sterile gloves held out by the nurse. To hell with the gloves: the operative field wasn’t sterile and we had to get moving. The top of the baby’s head—the caput—was plainly visible, and I could see that the cervix was fully dilated and effaced. This baby was ready but had stalled. I introduced myself to the patient and placed a hand gently on her belly. “It’s been a while since I did one of these,” I told her, “but we’ll work through it together.”

The OB head nurse told me there had been no progress in the past half hour and she was concerned because the baby’s heart rate was intermittently decelerating. “Have you thought about doing an episiotomy?” she asked.

“Right, sounds like a good idea,” I replied. Without a word, she placed a pair of surgical scissors in my bare hand and indicated with her finger where the cut should be made. A couple of snips and the head began to come out. Dropping the scissors, I managed with both hands to control the delivery of the head and move it gradually through the birth canal. And then it was out! The baby filled the room with its cries. I was so relieved that I forgot there was more to come. As I released my grip, everything else—shoulders, buttocks, legs, placenta—flopped into my lap, covered with blood and other juices.

I told the patient she had a beautiful baby girl: pink, active, all ten fingers and all ten toes. She thanked me with great warmth and sincerity and told me I’d done a wonderful job. She said it seemed like I must do this all the time. “Very much a team effort,” I told her, bowing to the head nurse and looking her in the eye.

Just then the private obstetrician arrived, none too pleased that he had to clean up the mess and sew up the episiotomy while I got all the glory. I thanked the head nurse again for walking me through it. She shook my hand and gave me a knowing smile. “You did a fine job, doctor.”

I bounded back to the on-call room and, even though it was two in the morning, called Ellen. Through tears of joy I told her what had happened. “I delivered a baby!” She loved it, and she loved me.

* * * * *

In 2000, John traveled with a group of birders to Attu, the westernmost Aleutian island, closer to Russia (by a lot) than to the continental U.S., and an extraordinary location for searching for rare birds—for “lifers.” It was grueling and physically demanding. At the end of the specified two weeks, a storm hit, delaying the planned departure and preventing any meaningful birding, even for the most crazed among them…

From Chapter 17 | Attu

The day before we left the island, the weather eased enough for us to bike to the runway ponds for close looks at Aleutian Terns gathering to stake out breeding territories. As we walked the hummocks around the ponds, one of the leaders thought he heard a Wood Sandpiper, the Eurasian version of our Lesser Yellowlegs and a Code-4 bird. A gray form that flew like a shorebird whizzed over our heads and dropped in behind a small ridge. We sprinted to the ridge, then crept to the top. After a fleeting look, the bird was gone. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “I saw it, but I didn’t get it.”

Over the course of the next hour the bird was briefly sighted two more times. Then, suddenly, it landed less than a hundred feet away. It was looking right at us, almost as if it knew why we were there. “Sure would be nice if we could see the back,” I whispered to no one in particular. The bird turned 180 degrees, revealing its spangled back, sprinkled with white and gold.

“Wish it would give us a side view so we could see the subtle barring on the flanks and lateral aspect of the tail,” said another birder. The sandpiper shifted a bit and turned sideways.

“Doesn’t it like to bob its tail?” someone asked. The bird bobbed its tail.

“Aren’t the wing linings key—paler than in the Green Sandpiper?” The bird shook itself and raised its wings.

It would be great to hear the call.” A soft, rolling tweadle, tweadle, tweadle emanated from the bird.

“Isn’t the call louder and harsher when the bird is in display flight?” The bird soared into the air repeating its call, loud and sharp.

As the Wood Sandpiper flew out of sight, there was a brief, stunned silence, then the crowd of bedazzled observers erupted into spontaneous applause—a standing ovation on the windswept tundra.

There is a special feeling about Attu—a feeling that you can let it all hang out, unfettered, unabashedly in pursuit of a collective grand passion, with no need to explain or apologize. Birding on Attu is magical, in part because of the extraordinary birds and in part because of the island itself. Attu touches the soul.