I am norwegian doctor who worked as expedition doc on the Antarctic research station Troll for the summer season 2007-2008. NB: This blog is intended as a personal and ecological account from The Ice Planet - fully independent of the Norwegian Polar Institute, their official web page being: npweb.npolar.no

18 Dec 2007

78 degrees south

Finally I get to do what I came for!
After one month of pressing garbage, driving big machines, moving barrels, and discussing the varying fuel-consumption from pulling different sled types, I'd almost forgotten that I'm a doctor. After all, I wouldn't be here if I wasn't.

2 days ago, in the evening, the Iridium satelite phone rang, as it usually does around 9pm - the South Pole Traverse expedition reporting in.
They have a medical problem.

The expedition is a norwegian-american collaboration and part of the International Polar Year (IPY) effort - quite expensive and high profile. (Link to the IPY traverse:top right corner. Check their expedition diary for an account of the visit). The main scientific yield is drilling for ice cores (small bubbles trapped in the ice tell the story of past athmospheres and temperatures) and by means of fancy sonars and radars form a 3d map of the ground deep down under the ice cap. They might discover lakes under the ice - similar to quasi-famous Lake Vostok (under the russian Antarcic base Vostok - the coldest place on earth). If these lakes contain (microbial) life, and we develop a technology to detect it without contamination (robots?) not only would these extremophile organisms be exciting all by themselves, but the technology could then be developed further to help discover life on ice-covered planet-moons like Europa (orbiting Jupiter).
This is still science fiction, of course. And therefore very exciting.

They're going all the way from Troll to the South pole. Currently they have been stranded at 78 degrees south due to mechanical problems - the long journey across the polar plateau in 30 degrees minus, pulling scientific equipment, fuel and living modules, is hard on the belt wagons.

In addition to this, the chief driller of the expedition has had an accident - an apparently minor cut in the finger refuses to heal after 1 week, it is still bleeding, and there are metal fragments contaminating the wound. There is no doctor with the expedition, "only" Kjetil, a norwegian mechanic/fireman/paramedic (extremely competent at all three!). He's been struggling to treat the patient for a week, and quite impressively managed to anaesthesise the finger and remove several fragments, but has now decided that she needs assessment by a doctor.
She is a vital member of the crew, and will not leave the expedition.

That means flying me in. 1200 km away, 4 hours flight, up to the top of the south polar plateau - furthest south, and probably furthest away from anything at all, that I'll ever be. An emergency Basler flight was set up, planned as a round trip in 1 day.

A flight to supply mechanical parts was already scheduled in 2 days, but we brought the stuff on this flight, for convenience. The big metallic thing is a gearbox. Next to it a "differential" (don't ask me!).

The orange backpack contains emergency medical equipment (I always bring that one when receiving flights). The orange briefcase is my "field pharmacy", also holding equipment for minor surgery. Between the two, coffee and toilet paper, for the traverse team.

Last speck of "land", briefly after take-off. After this, 4 hours across a vast, white nothingness.

No pressure cabin in the Basler. Cruising at 13000 feet, after 1 hour I started feeling short of breath, lightheaded and dizzy. After consulting with the pilot, and trying to rule out psychosomatic disorders or alcohol withdrawal, I diagnosed myself with altitude sickness. I was offered oxygen and the symptoms were dispelled within minutes.

Flying in at "point 92". The 12 expedition members have been stranded here, halfway to the South Pole, for 5 days. The surrounding landscape is quite featureless. Right after touchdown, the plane got stuck in a heap of snow. The canadian pilots laughed at the incident, and organized for a belt wagon to pull the plane out.

Vehicles, a couple of living modules, scattered scientific equipment, the compulsory fuel drums. Plane in the background.

I visited on a particularly warm, sunny and windless day, only 10 degrees minus, so most of the expedition members were outside, basking in the sun.

A red module like the one in the picture was temporarily changed from kitchen/common room to sickbay. The patient was well, but her finger cut showed signs of infection, and remaining metal fragments, although unlikely, could not be completely ruled out (no portable x-ray-machine, sadly!) After giving block anaesthesia and disinfecting, I debrided the wound (cut away dead or dying bits), ruled out any major tissue damage, splinted the finger, and started a course of antibiotics. She seemed happy with the treatment, although not too happy about not being able to work for a week.

Before reboarding the plane the 2 pilots , flight attendant and me enjoyed a lunch with the expedition crew. An impressive gang, they were all very determined and optimistic about making it to the Pole. After receiving the spare parts, the crew set to work fixing the vehicles.

The Royal Flying Doctor's Service (Antarctica). Next to me a pile of garbage, also to be brought back to Troll.

Land O'hoi! The mountains look a lot less inpressive from the plateau (southern) side. From this angle they appear as a great dam holding back a sea of ice (which is exactly what they do).

Down towards Troll airstrip. Stabben (from previous blog entry fame) at the far end of the range. Medical field trip over!
Again, a strong feeling of privelige.

I talked to Kjetil, the IPY paramedic/mechanic, today - the chief driller is still doing fine, being well looked after, and the differentials are being installed. Both courtesy of himself.
He must be a very busy man.

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