Nurse Ricardo

Going for a whole Winter in an antarctic station implies doing, or at least been able to, a series of unusual tasks for the profession that brought me here.

Most of these odd jobs appear only when Winter starts officially, that is, when we get reduced to just 13 souls and 8 modules. During Summer it is normally possible to bring enough people to Halley in order to guarantee that everyone uses the summer weather as much as possible for the job that required him/her to do the trip in the first place.

And that’s the reason why we had 3 chefs, 2 station assistants (for the daily cleaning of the station), 2 station support assistants (to deal with the cargo and waste), several mechanics, 2 atmospheric scientists, etc… on my first Summer here.

The most demanding positions had at least two people allocated to it, if not more. That allowed me to use both my Summers fully to engineering and all the scientific projects under my wing.

But when there are just 13 of us left, there are certain tasks that rapidly become to gruesome for just one person.

The best examples are the kitchen and the meteorological observations. There’s little room for maneuver with those ones. We need to eat every day and the synops are done all 365 days of the year. But since in Winter we only have one person looking after each of them, it is clearly not enough, that is, if we intend for those people to survive Winter. In Winter I had to cook for the whole team on more than one occasion (it happened to everyone) and/or be a Saturday or Sunday on Met duty every once on a while.

Redundancy is key in Halley. Its not a good idea to be completely dependent of a single person, specially during Winter. As such most of the training that we got in Cambridge and also during the first Summer in Halley was directed in to this goal: create a wintering team as diversified and capable as possible, for our own good to be honest.

One of the essential, but ironically least “used” element in Halley is without doubt the doctor. His presence in a wintering team is fairly obvious. Its one of those Antarcticy things that is not written anywhere but it is followed closely by any polar program. With the nearest hospital more than a thousand kilometers away, we need a doctor on station at all times, mainly to avoid silly deaths, like an appendicitis or a septicaemia developed through a poorly cut toe nail. There’s a whole lot of problems that can develop here that not even a dozen of medics could solve without a proper surgery room or without very specific medication. For those cases we can only rely on luck and a solid evacuation plan.

But for the general cuts and bruises, a physician and a decently equipped office should be enough.

The success of a season is inversely proportional to the work load of the station’s medics. Simple. If a doctor is into pints of blood across the floor, flying guts or cutting people for a career, than Halley is not the best place to for a year. Around here we really try to keep blood and guts on the inside and, though Halley has an absurd amount of scalpels and blades, its rare for someone to get cut up.

The doctor is the guy from our team that it is perhaps further away from his normal daily life since all of our efforts are to keep him bored and useless. But though a doctor he’s also another guy on the station that, as the rest of us, can get into a stupid accident or any other unexpected health issue. One of the first tasks of a doctor once in Halley is to train part of the wintering team as the advanced first aid team.

Why? Mainly, in my modest opinion, to guarantee a small security level for themselves. Yes, because doctors also slip in ice, fall down from stairs or cut fingers clean while trying to juggle 4 rusty knives. If not, just to leave someone else in the station capable of treating a bleeding wound or any sort of basic first aid.

But I would say that the main reason for this team existence is for him to be able to deal with a catastrophe. Its been a lot of years since the last recorded catastrophe in an antarctic scientific station, but no one can predict tomorrow’s and so its best to count with them to start with. In a very simplistic way, a catastrophe is an event that can transform the station in a urgency room in a matter of minutes, like for instance, a fire, an explosion, a major vehicle accident, a visit from Donald Trump, etc..

Whenever the normal work around the station gets interrupted and the future in jeopardy due to damages brought by the event or by human causalities, we are before a catastrophe and in its epicentre is the doctor. But as we know, doctors don’t work alone. In an hospital they depend on nurses, anaesthesiologists, radiologists, etc.., but around here we can only count with an hand full of the worst excuse for nurses around.

And that’s pretty much how the thing works. A few weeks in our first Summer we were divided in sub teams and I went with the nurses. And the reason why was the best one ever: since I had so much field work with the GPS and GPR sessions around Chasm 1 plus all the remote Lifetime of Halley stations, I had to be left out of the Search and Rescue Team since the most likely scenario was for me to be rescued rather than the other way around! Lovely!

During several days in Summer and at least once every two weeks in Winter I had a few hours of training in this context. The teacher was obviously our doctor and the sessions were mostly about the kind of problems that we may be able to solve with just about a few hours of training, like for example, basic reanimation (mouth-to-mouth breathing and cardiac trusts), suturing cuts, give injections or set up a cannula on someone’s arm for fluids and medication, stabilize fractures, etc..

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Besides training in these techniques, perhaps the most useful training was about knowing where all the emergency medical equipment on station was and how to use it properly. We have basic first aid kits in pretty much all modules and outside structures and load of medical bags with emergency gear, like folded stretchers, neck braces, syringes and needles, gauze, plaster for dressing a fracture, nasal and oral sondes, etc… The amount and type of equipment available to us is absurd, to a point where I needed most of a year just to get around all of it.

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I hardly consider myself as an EMT, let alone a proper nurse or someone of the kind. Yet I’ve been breathing into the mouth of a plastic dummy while vigorously massaging its chest or sticking needles in my friend’s arms (and vice-versa because we are quite democratic around needles here) for more than a year now. I may look like an ass staring at a palace in a proper emergency room but if someone chokes around me, I can at least try an Heimlich.

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