From a young age I was captivated by Antarctica and the heroic stories of its early explorers. But it was only a few years ago I realised that as a doctor, I could go to experience it for myself, through the Australian Antarctic Program. So I applied, passed the interview and was admitted to go to Antarctica for 90 days last year. Before I could leave, however, I had to weather four-and-a-half months of intense training. This included survival training, fire safety, station safety, quad bike operation and dealing with group-dynamics training — as well as a stint in Melbourne, where I learned dentistry, physiotherapy and how to take X-rays. When I finally arrived at Antarctica’s Casey Station, I was amazed by the beautiful and overpowering environment. We were on the continent’s edge, only 3880km south of Perth, yet the lack of smells and colour was so different to anything I’d ever known. Fortunately, it was the summer, so we had sunlight for more than 15 hours a day and the station was buzzing with activity. It made it easy to develop a routine. The medical facility was brilliant. After 72 years of sending people, including doctors, down to Casey Station, the Polar Medical Unit had evolved to the point where it was prepared for almost any scenario and I was never without anything I needed. In fact, the facility was our station’s ‘MacGyvering’ haven. Tradies, carpenters and diesel mechanics on the base often came to see if there were any spare syringes, blunt needles or bits of tubing they could use in their own projects. Despite this, we still faced several challenges. We had almost 160 young, healthy people to care for and my new context meant that I’d have to make calls on whether to send them home based on simple things like skin lesions, lumps or weight loss. These were big decisions since it would affect their research or projects, but the alternative was staying for the winter — where they couldn’t be extracted for 6-9 months if their symptoms worsened. I also had to find a way of balancing being with people socially and maintaining a professional distance, which meant it could be isolating at times. Still, I participated in several social events, including one of the newer traditions where personnel would go for an Australia Day swim (wetsuit not included) off the boats’ landing beach. Given the hypothermia risks, we had a maximum of five minutes in the water before having to try to walk out. Funnily, spending three weeks telling people how cold 0-1° Celsius water was going to be did not prepare me for how cold it actually was. After I jumped in, I felt my body shut down — my lungs tightened and I was struggling to breathe. I felt every blood vessel in my skin crunch shut, with shudders of pain coming from each one. It took me eight hours to warm up again after that. And this was in summer! Goodness knows how people do it in winter. I really appreciated the experience during my time there. It gave me confidence in my abilities as a generalist. I think generalism is the future for a lot of parts of Australia. In a country like ours, I don’t think it makes sense for our resources to be localised to major cities when we have so many diverse communities separated by such great distances. In Antarctica, there’s no elderly people, kids, pregnant women, chronic disease or drug and alcohol problems — so it’s a very different medical spread down there. But it has empowered me to think that if we can have such a holistic medical solution down in Antarctica, why can’t the same things be happening in rural Australia. This is where things like telehealth, using local networks and understanding referral pathways are essential to bringing the quality of health services that we see in cities to people in remote areas. These thoughts have spurred me to continue my rural generalist training with ACRRM. Right now, I’m excited to be working at Ochre Medical Centre Queenstown. It’s still pretty remote, located 170km north-west of Hobart, but with any luck, I’ll get to go back to Antarctica one day.
I’ve worked on ships in the Russian Arctic and I’ve also worked in Antarctica — I’m ‘bipolar’, as somebody once said to me. Antarctica is an amazing place. There are a lot of scientists down there doing different things and they often need help counting penguins or tagging seals. I’m a keen gardener, so when I’ve been down there, I’ve looked after the hydroponics. It’s a different life, and being isolated with a small number of people has its own challenges. You have to live with your patients and look at them across the dinner table three times a day. There are small things too. For example, I ordered something online to come in on the next ship. The bank cancelled my credit card because they didn’t recognise the place I was buying it from. I rang them and they said, ‘It’s alright, we’ll send one in the next post’. But that was in eight months’ time. I also had some major things happen on ships. I was on an icebreaker in a remote part of the Russian Arctic and we had a helicopter crash. Seven people injured with varying degrees of injury. There was me, as the passenger doctor, and a Russian doctor who normally looked after the crew. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Russian, but we still managed to sort it out between the two of us.
Dr Eve Merfield
In the late 1990s, with my three children at primary school, I formed a bush band with my daughters — one daughter in particular — and other kids at the East Launceston Primary School. Then the children grew up and went to high school. They don’t have much to do with parents after that, as we all know. So I had this acoustic guitar and a number of bush songs that I’d started singing. And I thought, what am I going to do with this? You can’t just practise bush songs in a back room. You have to have a reason. So I thought, maybe busking? I started standing on a street corner in central Launceston, raising money. It gave me a reason to practise, it gave me a reason to learn songs and it gave me a reason to get better. Because if you’re going to force yourself onto people on a street corner somewhere, I think you have a responsibility to know your songs, to be able to play your instruments well and to sing in tune. I started that back in the early 2000s, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Two years ago, my eldest daughter said, ‘Dad, I’m going to Africa, but my travel companion has had to opt out. Why don’t you come with me?’ It turned out that when I signed up, that part of ‘going to Africa’ included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania. And I thought, okay, maybe I can do something with this. So I turned that part of the Africa trip into an attempt to do the world’s highest busk. I did that and recorded it all. The song I sang at the top was Waltzing Matilda — with 70% oxygen, after climbing 5900 metres over a couple of days. Is that the last chapter? Well, a few months ago, my daughter and I agreed to go to Mount Everest Base Camp. Everest Base Camp is just 100 metres or so lower than Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m pondering whether to take my guitar and do what would be the world’s second-highest busk.
Dr Andrew Jackson
There was a moment when I was standing naked in a waterfall, picking off leeches, with the photographer barking directions at me, that I started having doubts. It was taking an interminably long time, and the damp cold seemed to be seeping out of the ancient forest floor and into my bones. But it was for a good cause, I reminded myself, as Kirsty adjusted her lens for the umpteenth time. I hadn’t quite known what I was getting into when I saw the poster at the local servo advertising for nude models for an environmental cause. Kirsty is well-known here in Tassie as an artist and activist, and she wanted to raise awareness about old growth logging in the Tarkine. When I told my best friend Helen, she was like “You’ll never do that, you’re such a prim prude”. Which cemented my resolve. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone. And the photos are de-identified, discreet. We made a few trips to different places … Mount Wellington, the Styx Valley. Kirsty has snake phobia so we had to wait until the middle of winter. One time, we went to a logging coupe. We had to sneak in, hide the car. You could hear the chainsaws, logs hitting the ground like thunder. The ground shook. We were going to a special place Kirsty knew about, but there was no path — we followed these strands of pink builders tape tied to trees by activists who had gone before. We got lost a few times. The trees were massive, they call them ‘cathedral trees’ ’cause you can walk inside them. The absolute beauty of the place … it’s almost untouched, these beautiful floors of moss, bright green fungi. There is a feeling these forests are so special, and they were being destroyed right in front of us. Then we arrived, and we just took our clothes off. Kirsty is a real perfectionist — each shot took forever. But it was worth it. The photos turned out beautifully and got published in a book. As it turned out, my picture is on the cover. I remember walking past the window of one of the big bookshops in town and there it was. I was a bit lost for words.