Dr Peter Lovell & Dr Brian Walpole

Peter Lovell
Dr Peter Lovell

The cold doth not sting...

This doctor counts his blessings... and penguin chicks! by Dr Fiona Benson

'It's like a paid holiday, living in a cross between the Sydney Hilton and a ski-chalet,' says Dr Peter Lovell as we chat on the phone. It's not a local call: he's phoning from Casey station, Antarctica. I spoke with both Dr Lovell, recently arrived at Casey, and Dr Bryan Walpole, soon to leave subantarctic Macquarie Island, about their experiences.

Dr Lovell, who wanted a break from general practice, first considered Antarctica when a friend applied. So at the first opportunity he sent in an application, underwent medical and psychological testing and was offered a position. Pre-departure training took four months and involved getting a limited coxswain's certificate so he could pilot Zodiac boats; becoming a firefighter; learning navigation - and some dentistry. Medically, he made sure he had drilled a few burr holes and he 'called in a few favours' so he could do some appendicectomies before leaving. He even had one himself!

His education has continued on station. He's become a cross-country skier. Overnight trips, whenever possible, can involve him burrowing into the snow for protection when he sleeps. He frequently ice climbs. The crevasses are so beautiful, he tells me, that more energy is exerted deciding to leave than in climbing out. Medical duties encompass mainly general practice and dental complaints, plus maintenance of the high-quality medical equipment. So far there have been no major traumas but he acknowledges his role is to be 'their insurance policy'.

Dr Lovell's training in underwater medicine is useful as Casey has a hyperbaric chamber that can house several divers. They research the impact of waste on the environment from a former American base. Other duties are more unusual. As postmaster, he franks hundreds of stamped, self-addressed envelopes, posted by stamp collectors worldwide who prize the Casey postmark. He also drives researchers to their field sites in the Zodiacs and sometimes helps out, recently spending a day counting penguin chicks.

But despite this wealth of tasks, pleasures and pastimes, when asked for a single highlight he can't choose. One is the proximity to Antarctic wildlife. The team attempts to remain a certain distance away to lessen environmental impact. But penguins are incredibly inquisitive, He says: 'even if you sit a distance away, they will walk right up to you.' Another daily thrill is the fantastically beautiful view from his office window.

Dr Lovell is thriving. But he feels doctors need a certain temperament to cope with the uncertainty of what will present. He says: 'If you lie in bed and worry, you're not going to have a very good year.'

Dr Bryan Walpole achieved a '40-year goal' when he won a job on Macquarie Island. His career and interests prepared him well. He is an emergency physician and former surgeon with interests in bush walking and ocean yachting.

Medically, most of his work on the island lies in lower-limb, soft-tissue injuries and orthopaedics, occurring when bushwalking over uneven ground. Another surprising source of injury is the outdoor sport played when weather permits. He says they 'go at it with considerable gusto', recounting a recent diagnosis of broken ribs after a soccer match. And at least a third of his duties are dental; teeth expand and contract in the cold, loosening fillings.

Phone and on-line medical back-up is extensive. Should major trauma occur there are three doctors in Kingston and specialists throughout Australia, though actual evacuation would take several days. His non-medical roles include ensuring the safety of drinking water. Contamination occurs when skuas, birds he describes as the 'vultures' of the island, drop rabbit carcasses onto the catchment area. When E. coli levels rise, Dr Walpole and a team spend a day removing carcasses.

He tends the hydroponic vegetables, saying fresh greens are not only good for morale but provide roughage in the meat-based diet. Species allowed on the island are chosen for their inability to grow in low ground temperatures, guaranteeing they can't become feral. He also is in charge of the brewery.

Email, phone and digital photos help him maintain a 'virtual presence' at home. Though both doctors miss family and friends, their experiences have been so positive that each hopes to return. In fact, Dr Lovell points out that he shouldn't really be participating in this interview - an article might increase his competition!

Dr Peter Lovell, Casey expedition medical officer, 2003
Dr Bryan Walpole, Macquarie Island expedition medical officer, 2003

Permission has been kindly granted to reproduce this article, which appeared in Australian Medicine 2003; 17 March, pp 14 and 15.