Monday, March 10, 2014

The (Almost) Dead Fish

I was living and working on the Billiken, one of the fishing boats subsequently featured on the reality show Deadliest Catch, when I came across the (almost) dead fish. Well, to be honest, the fish was dead when we came up upon it. Why it caught our attention after we had already processed (i.e. frozen and killed) over a million pounds of herring was a bit perplexing, but nevertheless, there the salmon lay in the water, belly up, dead.

We had been at sea for a couple of months when finally the boat docked at Akutan, Alaska and the captain gave the crew shore leave. I was on the boat as a processor, which meant I helped freeze the fish that smaller boats brought to us. In assembly line fashion, the first person would line the tray, then the next person load the tray with fish, then the next package it up, then the next load it in the freezer. We did this over and over and over again below deck, hardly ever seeing daylight or nightlight. So by the time we landed to offload our full load of frozen fish, all of us were ready for shore leave.
Most of the crew upon getting off the ship went directly to the local bar, where all of us would ultimately end up. A few of us, however, first took a walk along the shore, looking at the dozens of bald eagles hover over the docked boats, swooping down whenever a stray fish fell out of the nets offloading the boats. It was a fascinating sight, seeing so many eagles at once, and seeing them fight over their food. But then I looked down, and saw in front of me a few of my crew mates clumped together along the shore, all staring down into the water. They were looking at the dead fish.

One of them said he could bring the fish back to life by gently stroking the fish's gills. For some unknown reason, this was quite fascinating to all of us who had frozen millions of fish over the last couple of months. So with a strange captivation, I looked at my buddy carefully stroke the fish's gills, stroke the gills over again and again, then remove his hands like a magician to let the fish swim off. Only it didn't swim off. Instead, it remained dead, upside down in the water with it's belly up and back down.

Then, for some inexplicable reason I immediately said "here, let me do this" and I stepped up to the edge of the water and approached the dead fish. But instead of gently stroking it's gills, I quickly grabbed it's tail and vigorously shook the fish back and forth exactly three times, then let it go. Instantly, the fish jumped to life and swam off, out into the bay, diving deep down into the cold Bering Sea never to be seen by us again. The fish didn't need gentle strokes in order to live. It needed a good jolt to the system.

Although the story of the (almost) dead fish occurred decades ago, long before I even imagined I would go into medicine and become a doctor, the lesson to me remains medically sound. Sometimes, in order to live, we need a good shaking. For example, a person in cardiac arrest frequently needs a sudden shock with hundreds of joules of electricity in order to live. Some people with depression benefit more from a new life direction than from supportive counseling. Sometimes, when we are almost dead, shaking things up brings back life.

It's odd. Somehow, the (almost) dead fish taught me an important life lesson. Change can be good.

- Tom Heston MD