The Remotest Place on Earth
With many of the same risks as space travel, 10 months in Antartica as the sole medical practioner is an exciting, challenging and rewarding experience.
TMT GP Registrar Dr Ben O'Leary took time out of his job to answer some questions about the role and why he volunteered to spend 10 months at the remotest place on earth.
TMT: Why go to Antarctica?
BO'L: There is no way in or out during the long dark winter, so you have to be completely self sufficient, which appeals to my sense of adventure. It ‘s harsh beauty and isolation is beyond words, and what’s more it is a place that only a relative handful of people ever get to see.
TMT: What cases have you had to deal with?
BO'L : As the sole doctor, I have to be able to fill many roles, including dentist, surgeon, nurse, anaesthetist, lab technician, ships doctor, and more. I’ve fixed broken teeth, treated frostbitten fingers, x-rayed and reset fractures, and been the lifesaver at the local ice swimming hole with defibrillator at the ready!
TMT: Is it true that everyone who goes to antartica must have their appendix removed before going?
BO'L: No, only the doctor needs to have their appendix out, which is admittedly an unusual job requirement, but better than taking it out yourself while you’re down here.
TMT: What are some of the challenges you face as a doctor in such an isolated environment?
BO'L: The extreme nature of the Antarctic environment means any minor incident is potentially life threatening, and you have to prepared to respond to anything. You’re on call 24/7 the whole time you’re here, which for me is 10 months. In the field, little things like frozen hands and your eyelids freezing shut make work exciting, and on field trips you have to keep your IV fluid bags in your sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. But the remoteness and harsh environment make the challenge all the more worthwhile.
TMT: What is the hardest part of your job?
BO'L: Driving the forklift in the storeroom, the steering is really tricky.
TMT: How did you get to be the only doctor at a remote ice bound station on the southern pole?
BO'L: You apply through the Polar Medicine unit of the Australian Antarctic Division, based in Hobart. After passing the medical and psych tests, I did several months of training, including dentistry and ultrasound courses, and spent a bit of time brushing up my surgical skills, before sailing down on the icebreaker Aurora Australis in March.
TMT: How did TMT help you to get this position and still be on the program?
BO'L: Part of my time down south is counted towards my general practice training as an extended skills post.
TMT: What next??
BO'L: I’m doing an advanced rural skills post in Anaesthetics in Cairns next year, and keeping an eye out for the next adventure, maybe somewhere in the Himalayas, or maybe somewhere warmer...