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Independents' Day

Working as a TV crew doctor on location

From Ulaan Bataar to the deserts of the Ukraine, from sub-zero temperatures to grilling heat – Dr Annette Steele has seen and done it all in her work with television crews

From Ulaan Bataar to the deserts of the Ukraine, from sub-zero temperatures to grilling heat – Dr Annette Steele has seen and done it all in her work with television crews

‘Would you be interested in being our TV location doctor for a shoot in the Arctic Circle in Lapland?' said the voice on the phone.

I was just finishing a diploma in tropical medicine, so it came as rather a surprise that a few days after finishing my exams

I was packing a huge medical kit onto the back of a skidoo in the coldest environment I had ever experienced.

Looking after a crew, cast and support team of about 20, I found myself trying to work out how to stop the IV fluids and drugs freezing in the -20°C temperatures at night.

Trying to fit it all into the cool box that I had brought was another problem (it's great fun working around unusual problems with limited resources).

The environment was stunning. As part of the crew, I slept with the rest of the team in a huge Finnish army tent on reindeer skins on the ice floor. We had to keep any bottled water inside our sleeping bags at night, as otherwise it froze solid.

Things kept freezing during the day, too. One had to be particularly careful with chocolate bars – biting into a rock-hard Mars bar is a deeply disappointing experience, and can seriously damage your teeth.

The work itself was thrilling – a mixture of general practice with emergency medicine. Much to my surprise the tropical medicine came in handy, as one of the cast needed to be evacuated by sledge in a blizzard with suspected malaria.

Further TV location work followed.

I went to the island of Macau for a shoot featuring the world's highest bungee jump (which I did myself as a birthday treat from the crew), China for a series that featured kung fu training, and Mongolia for a taste of traditional nomadic living. Much of the latter was on horseback, and with that came the odd fall but no serious injuries. Living conditions ranged from a grotty Chinese hotel to a collapsed tent on the Mongolian steppe with a punctured sleeping mat in sub-zero temperatures.

Mongolia or bust

The most memorable moment of all, however, was the programme about the Mongol Rally. This is an insane car rally from London to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. We were in a tiny Fiat Panda and the 10,000-mile journey took more than five weeks. We drove through all of ‘normal' Europe before hitting Romania, where we camped in cornfields under a huge, implausibly red, full moon.

After that it became ever more challenging, alien and entertaining. The police had to be bribed more and more often, border crossings could take a whole day, and I wished dearly that I had put more effort into learning Russian.

Then it was on through Ukraine, where we stopped at a surreal beachside holiday camp, complete with neon palm trees, near Odessa on the Black Sea.

The Kazakh desert was barren and swelteringly hot, with camel trains, shimmering mirages and oil refineries that made stunning silhouettes in front of the setting sun. At night we would pull off the road and camp hidden from view behind ancient Muslim cemeteries under our mosquito nets, watching meteor showers light up the night sky. On one occasion we nearly pitched camp in an ex-Soviet chemical dumping ground – fortunately someone noticed the skull and crossbones sign just in time...

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were unsatisfying ready meals eaten straight from the packet, usually while driving, as we tried desperately hard to make it to Ulaan Baatar for the official finishing party.

Despite many breakdowns, both mechanical and human, we made it to Mongolia, then the prop shaft fell off the crew's four-wheel-drive rear axle as I drove into the suburbs of Ulaan Baatar. We hobbled to the finish line two days late, jubilant but exhausted.

Fire walk with me

Since then I have been involved with another TV series. This included trekking in traditional dress through Bhutan, living with Masai warriors in Kenya and fire walking in Kerala in India. All of us who had been trusting – or stupid – enough to do the fire walk (many of the crew, myself included) ended up with second-degree burns on the soles of our feet.

But despite the pain, we had a great last night sitting on the edge of a swimming pool with our trousers rolled up and our feet dangling in the cold water, while the uninjured brought us supper and cold beer.

Being a TV location doctor can be thrilling at times and monumentally boring at others, and can swing from boring to total chaos in minutes. The skills needed are a mixture of general practice, accident and emergency and pre-hospital care, with a sense of adventure and some common sense thrown in. A good level of physical fitness is also important.

But a lot of time is spent sitting around waiting – often in extreme temperatures and with nothing comfortable to sit on. You need to be invisible and silent. You need to make sure you never appear accidentally in shot. Yet you must be ready to leap into action at a moment's notice, equipped to deal with everything from a tantrum to a major trauma.

When something dramatic does happen, the doctor may suddenly be on camera with a vengeance, tending the wounded.

It makes videoing consultations in the consulting room seem a pretty tame experience.

Dr Annette Steele is a locum GP in London

Chilly ambush Bhutan Mongol In a nutshell

Biting into a rock hard Mars bar is a deeply disappointing experience.

All of us trusting - or stupid - enough to do the fire walk ended up with second degree burns on the soles of our feet

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