Antarctic Medical

Trip Start Dec 18, 2008
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Trip End Feb 17, 2009


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Where I stayed
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Flag of Antarctica  ,
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

After getting back to Summer camp from skiing, I realized I was sick.  The South Pole is a difficult place to sleep without feeling ill, and this evening it was hopeless.  It turns out, I had an infection which was spreading to my kidneys, and was getting progressively more dehydrated and irritable.  My worst symptom was a series of horrible flatulence which smelled something akin to death itself.    All this was exacerbated by Austin cruelly rolling with laughter at me every time I let one loose.

At first I thought these problems had something to do with the Raro-drinking contest I had participated in earlier.  Raro is the New Zealand version of Tang drink, and comes in a neon powder which stings if accidentally inhaled.  The Raro contest was dishwasher Amy's brainchild, and two teams of idiotic participants stood round kitchen storage vats with double-long straws, ready to inhale the fluorescent yellow contents.  

Five minutes later the competition was over, and my team victorious.  The sweet feeling of victory was short-lived however, and replaced quickly by nausea as my teammates and I waddled off towards the bathrooms to vomit.  Disgusting as this all sounds, It was not the cause of my even more disgusting gas problem and sickness, it was the kidneys.  

Luckily for me, the Pole has a very accessible Medical Center, conveniently located next to the galley.  I was a frequent visitor, during the season, because as a NANA employee, I wasn't too concerned about records of my medical visits.  Raytheon employees are head over heels paranoid about medical visits, worried that too many will lessen their chances of a repeat season.  This is probably true, but it leads to a lot of employees suffering in silence, and everyone is always a bit sick.  

 Most people who stay in Antarctica more than a week develop a sort of nebulous cold condition that Ice people call "The Crud." It's coughing, wheezing, retching, that booger problem I mentioned earlier, etc.  There is really nothing you can do about it--it's just the continent trying to kill you.  

 If you're a woman at Pole you have something more to worry about.  Assuming you have yet to experience the joys of menopause, your menstrual cycle will probably immediately start doing strange things.  Some people just stop, some just bleed, and some just go crazy.  Ella, the resident doctor, told me she would love to do a study or something on this phenomena, but due to the rarity of women at Pole, it is currently impossible to find a sample size large enough to find anything conclusive.  No child has ever been born at the South Pole, and I think it's plausible that our bodies just think it's a really bad idea.  

Oddly enough, children have been born on the continent, and a number of families are semi-permanent residents with kids.  According to wikipedia, "As of 2009, eleven children were born in Antarctica (south of the 60th parallel south): eight at the Argentinean Esperanza Base and three at the Chilean Frei Montalva Station."

Anyhow, I head for the Medical ward early in the morning and lay sluggishly in the hall in front of the door, waiting for Ella to arrive.  She's exactly how I imagine a far north Alaskan doctor to be, no-nonsense, and often forgetting to actually write down the prescriptions, opting instead to rummage through cabinets and hand me whatever she feels necessary.  She is however, an excellent diagnostic.  Today I get the Physician's assistant, also excellent, who hooks me up to an IV cocktail which knocks me out for the next ten hours.  It feels something like heaven.

As far as dental health goes, there is only one dentist in Antarctica.  Everyone in Antarctica knows this, because she signs all her emails, "The only dentist in Antarctica."  I never met her, but I heard rumors of eccentricity (not a rare affliction on the ice.)  The dentist planned to visit pole during January, especially to clear those crazy to sign on for a double season shift (summer then winter.)  Rumor has it she was trying to book as many patients as possible to push her stay at Pole from three days to a few weeks.  Why, you might ask--simple.  Polar life is a vacation for McMurdo folk.  Just ask the rotating fire department. 

When Only Dentist did arrive,  she was sick as hell, and rushed quickly to the hospital wing.  Pole is a sealed remote environment, and as you might imagine with all our tri-wall room divisions and communal eating, illness has the potential to travel quick.  I'm acutely aware of this, because whenever anything hit, I was first line of defense with the dishes, and often feeling slightly cruddy.  Ella quarantined here and strictly forbade her from leaving the wing until they could get her on the next flight out.  
"Why the hell anyone would board that plane and come here knowing they were going to get the who station sick is beyond me.  I mean, how stupid...I caught her right away though, so hopefully..."
"Um... I saw her wandering around the halls... is that okay?"
  "What?!?  I directly forbade her..."
"Maybe it was someone else, it was just a woman I don't recognize, so I assumed..."
But Ella was off hunting for her rouge charge to prevent Polar epidemic.  
 
In the end, Only Dentist returned to McMurdo, and all the winter-overs were shipped to Christchurch for their pre-season dental work, which none of them seemed to mind, though I'm sure it was costly for the company. 
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