Treating patients on the Antarctic sea
Dr Ric Mellor describes a typical day as the only healthcare worker on a research ship bound for Antarctica
Dr Ric Mellor
Role Medical officer on the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Royal research ship Ernest Shackleton, travelling between Cape Town and the Halley Research Station, Antarctica. Previously worked as a GP locum in the North East and for the out-of-hours NHS 111 service.
Hours worked Post began at the start of December last year and ends in March. Previous posting began in November 2014 and ended May 2015.
I usually go down to the galley for breakfast – we get a cooked breakfast daily and two three-course meals.
I arrive in the medical surgery, which is about five steps from my cabin, so not the most challenging commute. It’s about the size of a standard GP consultation room. I check my email for anything important from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) medical unit, based at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, such as a medical for a new crew member. I also catch up on emails from friends and family. The limited internet access doesn’t allow for much more than email, but we can also phone home.
It was always a dream of mine to work for BAS so when a job came up on the Ernest Shackleton research ship just after I finished my GP training, I couldn’t resist. The ship comes to Antarctica during the UK winter; its main purpose is to transport research workers, support staff and supplies to the five BAS research stations, and bring back rubbish and people who have been working there during the long, dark winter months. I will do three trips to and from the Halley Research Station this year. The crew is normally 25 personnel and there can be up to 50 people on board if there are passengers.
The first patient of the day comes in. I have no set appointment times and I’m essentially on call all day, but most people usually know I am in the surgery in the morning. It is only a 30-cabin ship so I cannot really escape my patients. This one has diarrhoea and, because it could easily spread, I confine him to his cabin. Most illnesses I see are the usual GP problems – coughs, colds and strains.
The ship crew have a medical every two years but those employed by BAS get a second one, which I do. In the past we’ve had to send people back for various medical reasons, mainly BMI, uncontrolled blood pressure or heart disease.
With the ship being so far south the nearest hospital is in the Falklands, around eight days’ sail away. There is also the possibility that the ship could get stuck in the ice. The responsibility of being the lone health worker can be quite daunting, but serious cases are rare.
I don’t normally have many patients – two is a busy day – so depending on who needs help I may go to help out with the crew’s tasks, such as in the kitchen.
This is designated ‘smoko’ on the ship, meaning coffee time. I usually head to the bridge, which has the best coffee machine and view – I sometimes get to see an emperor penguin or seal.
I organise the ship’s medical supplies. We’re prepared for most emergencies – there are X-ray and ECG facilities, an observation monitor and drugs for most scenarios. Not surprisingly, seasickness tablets are most in demand. Stock often goes out of date and needs replacing, so I spend some time discarding out-of-date medication and ordering more for our return. I mainly throw out-of-date medication into the ship’s furnace, but for controlled drugs, the captain has to sign it off first and we discard it together.
It’s the second big meal of the day – we have a selection of salads, soup, a choice of main meals and a pudding. Everyone including the captain and the officers eats together in the main mess.
This afternoon there is a lifeboat drill. As leader of the first aid team I muster with my team in the surgery, and when the captain tells us, we head to the lifeboats.
The working day is considered officially finished. People relax, either watching a movie in one of the lounges, going to the gym or sauna or sitting in the bar with the crew. I am careful how much I drink as I don’t really have a replacement so am on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.