Preparing polar doctors of the future

Former astrophysicist, science teacher and helicopter pilot, John Cherry, could certainly take his pick of any number of exciting careers. But it is expedition medicine, and in particular Antarctic medicine, that has really captured his imagination.

Now an intern at the Orange Health Service in regional New South Wales, Dr Cherry has just returned from a month-long visit to Antarctica as part of an extra-curricular medical placement at the Australian Antarctic Division’s Polar Medicine Unit.

The placement is part of the John Flynn Placement Program (JFPP), which aims to encourage medical students to work in rural and remote areas when they graduate (Australian Antarctic Magazine 24: 30–31, 2013).

For the past three years, Dr Cherry and two other JFPP participants, Jessie Ling and Felix Ho, have spent two weeks a year working with doctors in the Polar Medicine Unit to learn more about what it takes to be an Antarctic doctor. This included restocking medical supplies for Australia’s Antarctic and subantarctic stations and the ship, Aurora Australis, engaging in teleconferences with doctors on station, and participating in the medical teaching practice of ‘grand rounds’.

This season, at the culmination of their placements, Dr Cherry and Ms Ling (see related story) travelled on the Aurora Australis to Casey research station, for some hands-on experience of polar medicine.

“We had almost two weeks on station and we helped with the resupply of the medical facility, we assisted with some minor dental work on a patient, and we had a tour of the facilities,” Dr Cherry said.

One of the station doctors arranged for some scenario training, based around a patient who had been exposed to the elements overnight following a trauma on a quad bike. The pair provided initial treatment, then loaded the patient on to a stretcher and took them back to the station for further care.

“It’s not often you get to do Antarctic trauma training on a glacier surrounded by penguins. It was quite surreal but very educational,” Dr Cherry said

Dr Cherry was inspired by the clinical excellence of the doctors he met during his Antarctic placement.

“The uniting theme across experienced and first time Antarctic doctors is their well-rounded and excellent clinical skills that allow them to deal with any medical emergency in such a challenging environment,” he said.

“While telemedicine and the support of doctors in the Polar Medicine Unit mean they’re never alone in Antarctica, they really need such a broad range of skills compared to medical specialists, and it’s something I hope to emulate in my future career.”

Dr Cherry was also impressed by the sense of community, with everyone chipping in to help with different aspects of station and ship-board life on top of their own responsibilities.

As a result of his time at the Antarctic Division and in Antarctica, Dr Cherry is now considering training to become a rural GP. His current internship and next year’s Resident position in Orange is a direct result of advice from Antarctic doctors that rural practice allows doctors to gain skills earlier in their career than they might working in metropolitan areas with a greater workforce.

“As soon as I’m qualified and experienced enough I hope to apply for a position with the Antarctic Division’s Polar Medicine Unit,” Dr Cherry said.

“Medicine allows you to serve those most in need anywhere in the world, and it gives you the opportunity to travel and seek adventures that you couldn’t get with other professions. I want to make the most of that.”

The JFPP is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Health and administered by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM). For more information visit the ACRRM website.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division