The setting for this year’s polar medicine training course was Alta, a small settlement, 72 degrees north and well within the arctic circle. A place with a deserted high street where you would be lucky to see one other passer by every 15 minutes, easily explained by a temperature at least ten degrees below freezing and a good foot of snow on the ground.
Our Base camp was a 40 km drive along icy roads to a picturesque mountain lodge by the name of Ongajoksetra. At the higher altitude the temperature was that much lower and if a wind was blowing, temperatures as low as minus fifty could be achieved. We were introduced to the Scandinavian team who would teach us methods of navigation across such tough terrain in harsh conditions and also to the Expedition Medicine team who would teach us polar medicine in a series of lectures and practical sessions both in the classroom and in the field. One more group I must not forget to mention is the team of fifty sled dogs who would provide another mode of transport across the snow.
My first day involved skidooing up a mountain demonstrating the importance of protective clothing, navigation aids and preparation for travel in severe blizzards with visibility of approximately two metres, sudden drops in temperature and rapid weather changes. I realised that without our trustworthy guide, Espen Ottem, we could become hopelessly lost in such conditions where you would be unable to survive more than a couple of hours at most. Our dog sledding guide, Pre-Thore was the perfect example of this as he told us of the time where inadequate preparation resulted in frostbite, blackening of his fingertips but fortunately no amputation. This story made me somewhat paranoid about the daily pain and numbness in my hands and feet when outside in the cold for prolonged periods. A “buddy system” was paramount to preventing frostnip. Simply by having that small exposed area of skin, pointed out to you to cover up.
Dr Leslie Thomson, a consultant anaesthetist who had first – hand experience of polar medicine after spending several years in Antarctica taking part in the British Antarctic Survey gave an excellent lecture on hypothermia, bringing home how hypothermia is not just a condition seen near the poles but also in the Saturday night party goer who collapses under the stars, the homeless and the elderly. We were taught how to treat by various re-warming methods and when to commence C.P.R in the hypothermic patient sending home the message of not pronouncing death until warm and dead in certain individuals. This information was demonstrated by the story of Dr Anna Bagenholm , a 29 year old doctor who fell into icy water whilst skiing in Northern Sweden, immersed for approximately an hour, her body temperature was 13.7 degrees centigrade. C.P.R continued for three and a half hours alongside re-warming techniques such as bypass, bladder / stomach / peritoneal lavage and warm intravenous fluids. She survived to become the person with the lowest body temperature ever to survive.
Expedition & Wilderness Medicine obviously feel that first- hand experience is the best way of teaching and as a result each member of the group had to undergo cold water immersion. Prior to undertaking this challenge we were kindly taught about the cardiac arrhythmias that can be induced by the shock of entering the water, the short term cold water gasp reflex increasing the chance of aspiration and swimmers failure! One by one we stepped up to an ice hole in our thermal underwear and in the more daring members of the group a little less! to swim across icy water. I can confidently say that was the coldest I had ever been. As if several knives had been plunged into my body, breath taking and inducing chest pain, I swam across water of ridiculously low temperature to attempt getting out of the hole using my ski polest
Our nights spent in the field we were taught how to construct snow holes. Five hours later our own little home with two double beds, stove, cupboards and shelves for our candles was constructed. It was as comfortable as it could be on a mountain side with winds blowing outside dropping the temperature to twenty below. I was amazed that the snow hole was so warm at five degrees compared to the outside however a slight air of nervousness was in the back of my mind as my avalanche detector slowly flashed in the corner and a rope attached to a spade inside connected our holes to other holes in case of us having to be dug out. The course perfectly demonstrated how to survive in such conditions
In summary the course prepared 25 everyday doctors to be able to traverse the polar landscape, recognise and competently treat local cold injury and hypothermia as well as to be safe expedition medics capable of caring for their groups and evacuating when required. To spend a week in such a location gave me the upmost respect for those who live in these regions and cross the landscape as part of everyday life, as well as a great respect for the land. In a day and age of global warming and melting of the polar ice caps it becomes paramount to look after our environment, to take only photographs and to leave only footprints.
Dr Claire Roche, Clinical Fellow in Emergency Medicine Countess of Chester Hospital. See the BMJ article.
To see the full range of Expedition & Wilderness Medicine Training Courses see here.