A day in the life of an Antarctic medical practitioner

Dr John Cadden

The chance to practice my love of medicine on the Antarctic mainland was a dream fulfilled.

Lucky to have had a broad medical training in a truly "general" country practice, and with a belief that I wanted to continue to expand the breadth of my medical experience, I could not conceive a better appointment than with the Australian Antarctic Division.

Pre-departure medical lectures, with a review of skills required to practice medicine in isolation, combined with dental, field craft, field first aid, survival and SAR lectures provided a rich learning experience far beyond the realm and norm of suburban General Practice.

The opportunity to apply and test myself in a demanding, beautiful and isolated environment provided a real incentive for learning and reviewing my medical skills and physical status.

Our year was blessed with safety, the blend of individuals and luck.

John Cadden
Davis Expedition Medical Officer, 2003

Dr John Smith

What is it like living and working in Antarctica as a doctor?

I asked myself this question about a year ago, while looking at an advertisement in a medical magazine during a lunch break in the surgery. I have now been at Mawson Station for the past four months finding out first hand what it is really like and learning more every day.

I can gladly report that to date there have been no significant medical emergencies to deal with, as now there are only twenty of us left to winter over here for the next eight months it should remain quiet on the medical front.

I probably see myself as a fellow expeditioner, itinerant labourer, photographer, and of course, finally a doctor if needed. The station is extremely well equipped medically and complemented with a group of very willing anaesthetic and theatre assistants if required, namely the chef, plumber, carpenter, biologist and the meteorologist.

After being called urgently to see a young man who had stumbled and sprained his ankle badly, I was asked if he would benefit from a cold pack immediately, to which I replied 'no', while removing his shoe and sock in –5 degrees! I am still not sure if it was 16 years of country general practice or two months in Antarctica that made me resist the ice pack first aid measure.

If my wife allowed it, I would certainly love to return to this continent, which is probably one of the most unique and isolated environments on earth; it certainly is a privilege. A good friend and colleague of mine was continually asked why he wanted to go to Antarctica and he answered quietly, that if they had to ask why, then it was unlikely the answer would be understood.

Australia maintains stations at Casey, Davis, Mawson and Macquarie Island.

The only drawback to this adventure will be returning to routine medical work back home; certainly country locums look the most attractive so far.

John Smith
Mawson Expedition Medical Officer, 2003

Permission granted to reproduce from: 'Australian Family Physician 2003;7:557. Copyright Australian Family Physician.

This page was last modified on 12 August 2010.