The doctor on an Antarctic field station

Authors: Tom Everett 

Publication date:  13 Jul 2016


Watching playful emperor penguins is a common entertainment for Tom Everett, the only doctor on an Antarctic field station

A cold northerly wind whistles around buildings, blows snow sideways from the wharf, and sends darkening clouds scudding through the sky. The Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton gives three lonely toots from her horn as she manouevres off and her bright red sides become enveloped by a shroud of billowing white. As I look around, our little community of 21 are busily letting off red smoke flares and rockets as farewell. We will only have each other to depend on for the next seven months.

A unique workplace

Winter has begun for me at Rothera research station, part of the British Antarctic Survey. I’ll be the sole doctor here for the next six to seven months. No inpatient list, no ward rounds, no bleep, no waiting room, no rotas, no theatre list, no nurses, and no midwives. No medical colleagues at all, in fact. No magnetic resonance imaging scanner, no computerised tomography scanner, and only plain film x rays that I will need to expose and develop myself.

Rothera is the largest of the British Antarctic Survey’s three stations, all of which are staffed with a doctor year round. Established in 1975, Rothera is located on Adelaide Island just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The nearest hospital is 1630 km away in Chile.

This is certainly a unique workplace. Highlights include morning clinic interrupted by emperor penguins and skiing from the door of the surgery. Even just walking around base is a reminder of the beauty of your surroundings.

The temperature can go as low as –20 degrees centigrade and like any extreme weather it can be both beautiful and dangerous. Sea ice forms when the ocean starts to freeze and the right conditions allow you to walk across the frozen ocean between towering icebergs while light from a low sun reflects, refracts, and diffuses all around.

If there’s an emergency at one of the field stations I jump into a plane and get a bird’s eye view of the grand landscape: icebergs, ice cliffs, glaciers, sea ice, and nunataks, the name given to a ridge or mountain poking out of the top of the ice sheet.

The stations are as far from base as Manchester is from Geneva so my concern for my patients is great, whether flying in person or discussing problems over radio or satellite phone from base. Field parties take scientists even further across Antarctica and, in summer when our total population increases into the hundreds, people are spread over what must be one of the largest on-call areas on the planet.

Fractures to frostbite

Problems range from fractures to frostbite, dermatological issues to dental, cold sores to contraceptives. As ever with expedition medicine, you prepare for extreme environmental injuries and yet patients mostly present with common problems just as they would elsewhere in the world.

Being a doctor in such a small community has enabled me really to get to know my patients. One of the challenges of expedition medicine is that you don’t leave your place of work or your patients. People get to know each other very well; they make judgements and challenge you in a way that lets you grow as a doctor.

Certainly Antarctica is not a normal place. Cabin fever for residents, skill fade for doctors, and hostility between residents can all develop. The doctor-patient relationship must prevail and the General Medical Council’s[1] good medical practice guidance should apply as ever. Patient confidentiality can be a challenge: one patient’s problem and your medical plan will often directly affect others because everyone is so dependent upon one another.

The joys of the unexpected have punctuated my time as a doctor on expeditions, and also the chance to get to know patients as people, not simply cases. The opportunity to live and work with an amazing group on Antarctica has been a career highlight for me.

How to apply

The British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit recruits annually with interviews usually around November for jobs starting the following May.

For further details and application forms please contact:

Peter Marquis, remote health care manager

British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit

Emergency Department, Derriford Hospital

Plymouth PL6 8DH

Email: petermarquis@nhs.net (preferred route of inquiry)

I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that I have no competing interests.

References

  1. General Medical Council. Good medical practice. 2013. [Link] .

Tom Everett medical officer British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctic Peninsula, 67° 34′ south 068° 08′ west

 tom.everett@doctors.net.uk

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: