Antarctica inspires medical future

Over the 2015–16 summer I was fortunate to travel to Antarctica on a month-long return voyage aboard the Aurora Australis, as part of the John Flynn Placement Program at the Australian Antarctic Division.

While on the ship, John Cherry (see previous story) and I participated in some mock scenarios as part of the medical response team, and helped the ship’s doctor in morning clinic in the ship’s surgery. During our 11 days at Casey research station, we helped in the medical clinic, unpacking literally a tonne of medical resupply equipment, and discussed career pathways and opportunities in expedition medicine with the medical team. We put our practical skills to the test in the Antarctic environment during a realistic field medical scenario, and I was also able to assist with some dental procedures and had some tutoring in how to perform fillings.

The experience heightened my awareness of the challenges associated with delivering health care in isolated areas and living and working in a small community. As a member of a small group, which is both a working unit and a social community, professional and social roles intersect. As the medical officer, your patients are also your friends and support network.

The trip also reinforced for me the distinct aspects of Antarctic work for the station doctors. The isolation, remoteness and harsh environment result in health issues that are peculiar to this extreme setting, which the station doctor must be able to manage. While modern technological developments, such as telemedicine and the digitisation of medical information, have lessened the ‘tyranny of distance’, medical practice in Antarctica remains uniquely challenging.

These challenges pale in comparison to the tremendous opportunity to work in, and enjoy, the mesmerising Antarctic landscape and wildlife. The strong sense of community at Casey station, and the enthusiastic welcome from all expeditioners, also made this a truly exceptional experience.

I’m currently in the final year of my medical degree in Launceston (Tasmania), and have a few more years of training ahead before I can apply for a position as an Antarctic doctor. However, the tantalizing prospect of returning to work in the great southern continent will fuel some of the long nights in the hospital ahead. I would especially like to thank my mentor, Dr Jeff Ayton, and all the Polar Medicine Unit staff, who have been so welcoming, encouraging and inspiring.

Jessie Ling