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Fmr. South Pole Physician Dr. Robert Thompson on his rescue from the South Pole

Amundsen-Scott Station  

(CNN) -- Dr. Thompson was stationed at the South Pole from the fall of 1999 until the fall of 2000 and served as the station's physician. He took over as the station physician, a position held the previous season by Dr. Jerri Nielsen. She was well known for having has the unfortunate luck to develop breast cancer after being at the South Pole for the winter. Thompson was airlifted out after suffering a back injury.


CNN Moderator: The past three doctors at the South Pole had to be airlifted out. Do you think there is some sort of jinx on the doctors who are assigned there?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Well, a jinx is not a bad word for what's happening because there's really no medication connection to what happened to all three of us. Also, I don't believe there's any problem with the screening process.


CNN Moderator: How were you screened before you left for the South Pole?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Everyone that winters over passes the same screening. It is roughly equivalent to that of NASA's requirements for manned space travel. There are obvious disqualifying conditions for which people are not allowed to winter over. An example of that would be someone who has known heart disease, or poorly controlled diabetes.

Question from chat room: Why did you choose to work in the Antarctic?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Well, I did not simply want to work in Antarctica, which is a very large continent, but I wanted to go to the South Pole and winter over. The reason is that was the most extreme and adventurous place for me to practice medicine on earth that I could think of.

Question from chat room: What are the medical facilities at the South Pole?

Dr. Robert Thompson: The clinic is called Biomed, and it would be equivalent to a small one bed emergency department in a rural setting here back in the United States. We could do x-rays and simple labs. I casted a few broken bones. There's also a full dental setup and I also functioned as the station dentist.

Question from chat room: Do people get sick there much? What kind of care can a single doctor provide?

Dr. Robert Thompson: First, I'd like to think I provided the best possible care that one doctor can provide. My specialty is Family Practice and Emergency Medicine, so I know a little bit about a lot of things. My background for the job was considered ideal by the contractor who hired me. Interestingly, once the base closed down for the winter and we were all used to each other's "germs", no one got any infections. That is typical for wintering over at the South Pole. In the summer, when lots of people are coming and going, there are lots of mild infections such as colds and lots of altitude sickness because the south pole is at elevation. The practice in the winter was not busy but would best be described as an occupational medicine practice with lots of sprains and strains.

Question from chat room: How did you injure your back?

Dr. Robert Thompson: I took sort of a Three Stooges pratfall exiting my clinic down three steps which were coated with ice, as is everything down there. I landed on my butt. I did not think I was hurt at first.

Question from chat room: When did you realize you were injured?

Dr. Robert Thompson: I developed a sore back right after the fall, but it was mild. It was several weeks later when the pain was not improving and suddenly I knew the instant my disc ruptured because I had sudden onset of numbness, paralysis and severe pain.

CNN Moderator: How difficult was your rescue?

Dr. Robert Thompson: It wasn't hard for me because I was just waiting for the plane to show up. I was surprised that they arrived on the scheduled date and time, which had been designated months earlier. The decisions that go into when the plane can safely fly in did not involve me other than my obvious medical condition. I was stable, I did not have a life-threatening problem. Just pain and risk of permanent nerve damage.

Question from chat room: Were you also concerned about the safety of the aircrew?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Again, the decisions that went into whether or not it was safe to fly did not rely on any input from me. So, I put all my faith in the powers that be to make the best decision considering all the risks and benefits. Of course, I was always concerned and in fact responsible for the safety of everyone at the South Pole. Including aircrews who landed there.

Question from chat room: Does pancreatitis take a while to manifest?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Pancreatitis is a highly variable disease with a wide range of presentations. Typically, the onset is fairly sudden measured in hours to days.

Question from chat room: How does living there affect you or others psychologically?

Dr. Robert Thompson: In winter, the isolation and fulltime darkness is a prime setup for a psychological disorder known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise know as SAD. This could be considered a form of depression. But we were all heavily screened psychologically as well as physically, so this was not a major problem. But I would add, everyone felt the isolation and darkness. The word we used was that we were all "toasted" by the end of the season. Most people felt our productivity was much less than half than what we started the year by the end of winter.

Question from chat room: What is the average length of stay for someone in Antarctica?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Most people only visit for the summer or part of the summer which is four to five months long. As far as the American bases only about 1/10th of everyone who visits Antarctica winters over. That's a rough estimate.

Question from chat room: What kinds of diversions does the South Pole have to keep you entertained while not working or is it a 24/7 job?

Dr. Robert Thompson: There are 24/7 shifts, but no one person has to work that. A typical workweek is six days, I thin, 54 hours. Diversions were any indoor activity you could imagine. Including chess, darts, poker, cribbage. We played darts against another base using short-wave radio. Our video library had over 5000 movies. There was tons of music on compact discs. There was an unlimited supply as alcohol and we had the best parties I've been to in my life.

CNN Moderator: Did you ever meet Jerri Nielsen who you replaced or Dr. Shemenski who replaced you?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Interestingly, none of us overlapped face to face. There was an interim period between each of us of about one week in which a short-term doctor filled in. So, I never met either of the other two doctors face to face. But, I used to email Dr. Nielsen frequently before I went down to the South Pole.

Question from chat room: Would you go back to the South Pole to work again?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Honestly, I'm not sure. Thankfully the pain is a fleeting memory. And I seem to be mostly remembering the good times, but I still need more time and distance before I can say I would go back. They are building a new base and I would be curious to see that.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Dr. Robert Thompson: Without sounding too corny, Americans should feel proud that we have occupied the south pole continuously since 1958 and continue to persevere in the harshest environment known on Earth.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Robert Thompson: Goodbye, everyone and thanks for logging on.

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Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
National Science Foundation
Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica
The New South Polar Times

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