My first trip to the South Pole

I flew from McMurdo to the Amundson-Scott South Pole on a C130 on Monday.   The plane, for those of you not familiar with the C class, is a smaller version of the other cargo plane, a C17, that I took to get to McMurdo.  There was no helicoptor on board this time (bummer), but plenty of other cargo.  There were only 9 passengers going and I met most of them.  There were 2 from medical, myself and the dentist, Kressley.  I’m staying 5 days, she is staying 4.  She will need to Dental PQ any staff that is wanting to “winter over” at the Pole.  (Winter over at the Pole is early March to late October.) This is the same PQ process I went through before I arrived.  It essentially means  that the person who passed has no major dental issues that will require work.  There is no dentist in the winter and no planes go in and out of the Pole as well.  Also on board  the C130 is the chaplain, Father Tom.  He was going to the Pole  to “make his rounds” and leave the next day.  There were 2 “carps” (carpenter shop crew) that were coming to help with a temporary visitor center.  Remember it’s the 100th anniversary and there will be lots of “tourists” here.  They will be camping near this visitor center and are not allowed to enter the station where, you know, there’s heat and fresh food.  That’ll teach ‘em to take an adventure trip to the South Pole.  Back to the passengers…There was a man who is a microbiologist on board.  He is going to gather samples of ice to test bacteria, then leaving the next day.   There was a woman on board only expected to stay for a few hours.  Not sure specifically what she was doing but she’s part of management of McMurdo’s airfield.  Hmmm.  Blanking on the others.  There were 2 crew and 4 up in the cockpit.  Yes, of course, I went up in the cockpit.  Again.  Much better view this time.  I could see some very interesting mountains and glaciers this time.

We touched down about 3 hours after take-off.  I could feel the cold as soon as I stepped off the plane but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be (-24F).  Kressley and I were greeted at the airfield by the clinic doctor and off we went.  After a brief station orientation video, the doc showed me around the station which is primarily one building.  I don’t really need to ever leave it for my basic routine.  The best part though….drum roll, please….I have my own room.  Now it is about 6ft by 10ft.  Like a jail cell.  But it’s my little jail cell.  All mine.  No roommates.  It’s a pretty new building so the design of the room is quite efficient.  The bed is elevated slightly (I know, but it’s not that high.  And it’s definitely not below a pool table.).  There’s a desk with an office chair, a small chest of drawers below part the bed,  a wardrobe at the end of the bed and a book shelf at the foot of the bed for items I may want to store up there.  There is a lot of space under the bed for storage and the drawers and wardrobe would be more than sufficient if I had all my luggage with me.  I even have a window.  I was given no key to the room and didn’t bother to ask about it.  The furniture can all be locked if needed.  The clinic consists of a hosptial room with 2 beds and a long ER/trauma room with one table and with dental at the far end.  The doc has an exam table in his office.  The physician’s assistant uses the other office/lab.  There is a PT at the Pole only 3 weeks out of the summer and none over the winter,  so I just find space for myself.   I use a portable massage table that I set up in the hospital room  between the beds.  On my first full day I did a little inventory of the PT equipment and tools and checked to make sure all was in good shape.  They included:  a very old Estim unit….I believe it was from the 70’s or 80’s (with the needle dial) but it works fine…new ultrasound unit, the few small hydrocollator pads were dried out but they reconstituted with only one casualty.   I’m lucky that I do more manual therapy and exercise than modalities.

For fun, Kressley checked our oxygen saturation (O2 Sats) repeatedly on the first and second day.  For those of you who are non-medical,  an O2 Sat is telling us how well a person’s body is getting the oxygen that is breathed.  It’s measured as a percentage and normal is between 94-100%.  We would normally measure 98-100% as healthy people, but we were in the high 80’s to low 90’s.  We are low because of the altitude– 9500ft, but here’s the fun part:   With a change in barometric pressure here, it can feel like we’re at a greater altitude.  So you could do nothing and be more winded because of this.  Kressley was upset that I was able to achieve 99% with some deep breathing but attributed it to me taking Diamox, the medication to help minimize altitude sickness.  She’s taken it before but chose not to this time.   I was told ahead of time that I should take it even though I did fine (aside from a short-lived headache) when I was in Peru this past summer (11,200ft).  Aside from the annoying tingling in my hands and sometimes feet, I’m glad I took it.  I still huffed and puffed up stairs and felt pretty exhausted on the first day though.  When we arrived,  I had lunch, looked around the clinic, then I decided to take a nap…for an hour.   I woke up, then napped for another hour.  Then had dinner and thought I’d go back to my little jail cell to read for a bit…no wait…napped another hour, got up to go to the bathroom (no night is uninterupted when you’re drinking constantly), then napped until 10:30pm.  Yup.  I got up, brushed my teeth washed my face and went to bed for the night.  Didn’t wake until 5:30.  Wow.  But I felt like a champ the next day (until I had to take any stairs, of course.)

Now I mentioned the cold.  I discussed the altitude.  But I haven’t talked about the dryness yet.  Oh, the dryness.  “Drier than the Sahara,” I’m told.   YOU.  HAVE.  NO.  IDEA.  You know how when you have a cold and you’ve blown your nose so many times that it’s so dry and raw inside that you can feel every molecule of air passing in and out.  That’s how it feels.  And if you choose to breathe through your mouth instead, your tongue will be dry like the Sahara after 2 breaths.  Others say this gets better after you’ve been here a while.  I’m not convinced.  I’ve chosen to sleep with a hospital mask on to try to keep the air I take in a little more humidified.  I fear, slightly, that I will suffocate myself since I’m already not taking in the appropriate amount of oxygen.  So I take it off every once in a while.   Drink a few gulps of water, apply lip balm, pretend like I don’t need to go to the bathroom again and go to sleep.  Yes, drinking more fluids for me is a challenge.  Anyone that knows me well enough, understands that.   I’m taking in (believe it or not, Tonya) about 84 ounces per day.  And I probably should be doing more.    Nonetheless, my kidneys and bladder are getting a workout.   There’s skin dryness but not showering daily helps.  Oh, at the South Pole, it’s recommended not more than 2 showers per week for 2 minutes each.  I know a few of you will need to contemplate on that one for a few minutes.    So until next blog….

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One thought on “My first trip to the South Pole

  1. The hospital mask while sleeping is a very hilarious visual. Denise almost fell off the couch laughing. Don’t turn into a raisin!

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