This winter, I’ll be practicing emergency medicine on the beach. Sound sweet? Well, “beach” may not quite set the scene. While I will be living on the coast, I may only see open water for a couple of weeks and then only after a heavy-duty icebreaker laboriously opens a narrow channel to the Southern Ocean for the two cargo ships that make annual visits. The rest of the year, the ice stretches far beyond the horizon, covering the ocean so thickly that enormous U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes (maximum gross takeoff weight of 585,000 pounds) can use it as a runway. This “coastal” town will be my home for the next seven months: McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the continent’s largest population center.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 35 – No 01 – January 2016
This will be my second tour on “The Ice.” My first was the 2009–2010 Antarctic summer at McMurdo Station. When I told physician colleagues I met on that first trip that I would be returning for another season, I heard a variety of comments: “Wow!” “You’re braver than me.” “You’re crazy.” Returning for the winter season dovetails with my interest in remote and improvised medicine and my current global emergency medicine career. The station is far from civilization (an eight-hour military flight), making even the most critical evacuations extremely problematic in the winter months, when the winds can be hurricane force and -40 ° F is considered warm.
There’s a common saying on The Ice: “You go the first time for the adventure, the second time for the money, and the third time because you no longer fit in anywhere else.” For me, it’s the adventure again. The isolated posting presents an interesting challenge: an extremely hostile environment with a relatively small community, about 200 people including those at New Zealand’s Scott Base three kilometers away, involved in light industrial work.
There’s a common saying on The Ice: “You go the first time for the adventure, the second time for the money, and the third time because you no longer fit in anywhere else.” For me, it’s the adventure again.
The winter season will be significantly different from my summer experience. I led a team with up to three other physicians, a physician assistant, a physical therapist, a laboratory technologist, a dentist, a radiology technician, and up to five nurses. We were responsible for the medical care of 1,200 workers and scientists spread over the continent at remote science stations, and we could organize both routine and emergency evacuations without great difficulty unless the weather didn’t cooperate. This time, an experienced nurse practitioner and I will not only provide basic medical and surgical care but also act as dentist, radiology tech, pharmacist, and lab tech for the community.