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Practicing medicine in Antarctica: “It’s a harsh continent”

In this Q&A, Stanford physicians Julie Parsonnet and her husband, Dean Winslow, discuss their months-long stay in Antarctica providing medical care.

McMurdo Station is in one of the most desolate places on Earth -- Antarctica. During the summer peak season, when temperatures can be almost pleasant (up to 40 °F), about 1,000 residents call the Antarctic research station home. Julie Parsonnet, MD, and her husband, Dean Winslow, MD, arrived at the beginning of September and are providing medical care until February. I spoke with them recently to learn more.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

Dean Winslow: I served 35 years as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, and I had the great pleasure of coming down here for about six weeks. I thought that if I got to the place in my life where our kids were grown and we could afford to take off for five or six months, it'd really fun to do something like this together. So, we applied and got selected and here we are.

What's it like staying at McMurdo Station?

Julie Parsonnet: When Dean told me to come down, he said it's a mixture of a mining camp and an NIH [National Institutes of Health] campus. But I think he missed the Burning Man part.

McMurdo Station, which the Stanford physicians describe as a mining camp and research campus with a bit of Burning Man. (Photo by Peter Rejcek, NSF)

There are many researchers -- in physics, astrophysics, geology, climate science, and biology. The support people are a motley, bohemian crew. Our janitor, for example, has a PhD in microbiology.

DW: There are a lot of people that have been coming here for 10, 20, almost 30 years: it's become a way of life for them. There's an old joke that the first year people come to Antarctica, it's for the adventure; the second year they come, it's for the money; and the third year is because this is the only place in the world where they fit in. There are some real characters here but they're lovely, lovely people.

 JP: It's kind of like summer camp with hard work thrown in: We have six-day weeks and 10-hour days so there's not much downtime. There's no Wi-Fi so nobody's on their phone all the time. And it's pretty hard to use the internet.

But there are lots of things to do: science lectures, yoga classes, ping pong, games, art shows, craft sales, film festivals, parties with live bands, tours of historical sites and long hikes. There's even a marathon week.

Julie Parsonnet and Dean Winslow beside a cross dedicated to a man who drowned near the location in 1902. (Photo courtesy of Parsonnet)

The superficial things might not be perfect -- 'Antarctica is a harsh continent,' we often joke, but it's really impressive the National Science Foundation has managed to create a self-sustaining community that's getting science done so far away from the rest of the world.

What do you spend most of your time on? 

JP: Most of what we take care of is rashes, sprains, colds and dental issues. But we do have serious problems that occasionally crop up and require medical evacuations.

What the NSF is really concerned about is a mass casualty, like an airplane crash or an explosion or a fire.

How many doctors are there? 

DW: Julie and I are the two civilian doctors. We have a full-time pharmacist who took a pay cut from her regular job and came down, basically, as a pharmacy technician. We don't have a lab tech or X-ray tech. We don't have a dentist although we'll have one come down for a few weeks.

JP: We've been doing a lot of dental work. Fortunately, our flight nurse used to be a dental technician and usually, we end up being her assistants.

Can you tell me a little more about how you're preparing for a medical emergency?

DW: Our exercise scenario is a plane crash on the ice a few miles from our facility -- something we hope never happens -- where you'd end up with as many as 25 or 30 passengers and five or six crew members all hurt from minor injuries up to serious trauma. That would overwhelm just six of us, so we train volunteers.

So imagine if Julie and I are up to our elbows taking care of major trauma patients and our nurses are caring for other patients. If I'm putting in a chest tube and then another patient starts getting sick, we need to have people that can we can turn to and say, hey let's suction the patient out; this patient, hook up an EKG monitor; this patient, let's get a portable chest X-ray and make sure they don't have a pneumothorax. We need people to help be our hands.

In this Q&A, Stanford physicians Julie Parsonnet and her husband, Dean Winslow, discuss their months-long stay in Antarctica providing medical care.
Outside the McMurdo Station medical clinic. (Photo by Peter Rejcek, NSF)

JP: Our job is not to fix everybody. Our job is to make sure that they're fixed up enough so that we can get them on a plane back to New Zealand.

In the United States even in the most rural places, you still have pretty good access to pretty advanced medical care. When you're down in Antarctica, access to anything sophisticated is challenging. We don't have blood for instance.

DW: If we had to deal with a mass casualty, we would need a walking blood bank. All of the personnel that serve down here volunteer to serve as blood donors, so we would draw their blood, type the recipient, type the donor again, and then actually transfuse blood from walking donors.

Are you planning to stick around?

DW: Oh, gosh, no. We're coming back to Stanford and our real jobs.

JP: We miss nighttime. The sun hasn't set since October. We miss the smells of California. We miss seeing green -- there's no color here. Sometimes it's just white: the sky is white, the ground is white, everything is white. We miss animals and most of all we miss our family, friends and colleagues.

DW: Still, it's just an amazing place: In the whole history of the world, less than 100,000 people have actually set foot on the continent of Antarctica. We're very grateful for that experience. But both of us are looking forward to going back to our Stanford lives, doing research, teaching and caring for patients and families. 

Top photo by Mykhaylo Shumko/ National Science Foundation

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