Antarctic history is full of tales of heroic responses to medical emergencies ranging from the spectacular 1977 incident at a Soviet base where the doctor was forced to remove his own appendix, to the over-publicized case in 1999 where the South Pole doctor was rescued an entire week before the station was scheduled to open anyway. I’ve even played a very small role in a mid-winter knee surgery during my 2002 season where we established a video link to an orthopedic surgeon in the US to guide our doctor thru the repair of a torn tendon. This entry is about the latest chapter in the history of international cooperation in the Antarctic leading to another successful medevac.
Despite the best efforts of the Antarctic program to screen it’s workers, it occasionally happens that there is a medical emergency that requires more resources that can be comfortably be provided on station. If this happens during a summer season at McMurdo or South Pole, the patient can normally be flown out within a couple of days at the most. During the winter, things get more complicated, forcing either highly dangerous medevac flights, or even more dangerous emergency surgery.
At Palmer station, things are a little different. We live in a relatively populated area of the continent, with neighboring bases as close as 50 miles away. During the summer season it’s not unusual to find all sorts of ships in the surrounding waters, from other nation’s resupply vessels, to tourist ships bringing down those fortunate enough to afford passage down here for a few days. In the spirit of international cooperation it is standard practice to provide emergency transportation if needed, and normally a person can be back in Chile or Argentina within four or five days. In addition, while Palmer doesn’t have a runway, the glacier above the station is flat enough in sections that as long as the winter snow cover hasn’t melted, a small plane on skis can safely land. The US doesn’t maintain any aircraft on this side of the continent, but the British Antarctic Survey has a fairly sizable air fleet at Rothera Base, some 200 miles south of us.
To start at the beginning of the story, one of the crew presented at the medical clinic with severe abdominal pain. The station physicians (we had two at the time because the summer and winter crews are in a transition period) determined that there was a probable case of appendicitis, and that the patient should be evacuated as soon as possible. It’s too early in the season for tour ships, and our own resupply vessel was still a good week away with one bad engine, which meant that the earliest the patient could be in Punta Arenas was two weeks from the onset of symptoms.
Station management consulted with the NSF back in the states who called the British to find out the status of their aircraft. During the winter season, the Brits base their planes in Chile, and we were fortunate to find out that they had recently brought a couple of planes down to the continent. They agreed to help out, and suddenly our base was crazy with preparations for their arrival. Everyone on station was involved in one way or another. The SAR team spent the morning deploying flags on the glacier to mark out a skiway, others packed up the patient’s belongings, monitored radios, made lunches for the pilots, and someone even made a spectacular get well poster for the patient to take with them that was signed by all members of the community.
The weather had been lousy all day, but satellite images showed that there would be about an hour of clear skies between two storm systems. The Brits decided to trust the imagery, and launched their plane while there was still bad weather at both of our bases. Amazingly, the weather behaved exactly as predicted, and with about 20 minutes before the plane was scheduled to arrive we had bright blue skies and hardly any wind. The patient was bundled up and loaded on the back of a sled to be pulled up the glacier by a snowmobile. Only essential personnel were allowed up on the glacier during flight operations, so the rest of us all scrambled to find the best vantage point to watch the plane arrive and depart.
When the Twin Otter approached station, it was unreal how slowly it was flying. Watching from the roof of the IMS building I was absolutely amazed at how short of a distance it needed to come to a stop. The pilots probably used more distance to taxi to their takeoff spot than they did for a landing roll. They shut down their engines, and the patient and the outgoing winter doctor were loaded aboard. We gave them box lunches, and a bunch of Palmer souvenirs as thanks, and about 10 minutes later they were airborne again.
The plane stopped once at an Argentine base on King George island to refuel, and then they continued on for another six hours until they reached Punta Arenas around midnight. Our support staff in PA had arranged for an ambulance to meet the plane and transport the patient to a local hospital. Twenty-four hours later the patient had received surgery and was well on the way to recovery. The last we heard, the patient and Kelvin the doc were enjoying the scenery in Patagonia, and are waiting for the rest of the winter crew to arrive sometime around the 6th when we are planning a road trip to several national parks in both Chile and Argentina.