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Risk management in Antarctica, with Dr. Edi Albert

14 Aug 2023

Dr. Edi Albert, Senior Lecturer in Remote and Extreme Environment Medicine at the University of Tasmania, has spent his career working in a variety of extreme environments – including Antarctica. He sheds light on what it’s like working on the southernmost continent, career opportunities, risk management, and why you should continue practising the guitar.

Davis Sta­tion, Aus­tralian Antarc­tic Divi­sion. Graeme — stock​.adobe​.com.

Antarc­ti­ca is the cold­est, dri­est and windi­est con­ti­nent. A land of such extremes may not attract a native or per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion, but it does play host to an itin­er­ant pop­u­la­tion of sci­en­tists, adven­tur­ers and tourists.

With the south­ern­most continent’s aver­age tem­per­a­ture rang­ing from ‑10 to ‑60°C, any Antarc­tic pro­gram or expe­di­tion requires exten­sive pre-depar­ture plan­ning and edu­ca­tion, and is made pos­si­ble by tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled facil­i­ties and spe­cialised equip­ment. Stereo­typ­i­cal health con­di­tions asso­ci­at­ed with extreme cold (like hypother­mia and frost­bite) are there­fore rare.

The role for a health­care pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in this envi­ron­ment encom­pass­es not only treat­ing peo­ple with prob­lems but extends to help­ing plan what is often a logis­ti­cal­ly com­plex expe­di­tion so that it is achieved safe­ly and func­tion­al­ly,” Dr. Edi Albert says.

Clin­i­cians work­ing in this envi­ron­ment are often required to do so at an extend­ed scope of prac­tice due to resource lim­i­ta­tions and dis­tance from out­side help. 

To demon­strate the real­i­ties of retrieval, Edi gives an exam­ple from the Antarc­tic Penin­su­la, one of the more active areas, where you’ll find nation­al sta­tions (e.g. Amer­i­can, Chilean, Ukrain­ian, British) with doc­tors and tourist ships with dif­fer­ing med­ical capabilities.

If we were in a small tourist yacht and we had a prob­lem, we could prob­a­bly trans­fer a patient to a big­ger ship,” he says.

They could steam all the way up to King George V Island and arrange a mede­vac from South Amer­i­ca or keep going: it might only be 48 hours across the Drake Pas­sage and back to Ushua­ia, Argenti­na, where
there’s a hospital.”

How­ev­er, he notes that evac­u­a­tion can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars – mean­ing it is fre­quent­ly insur­ance-based – and that some­times there may be lim­its to what can be done.

You might have to just put up with more dis­com­fort and risk because evac­u­a­tion sim­ply takes longer and might not even be pos­si­ble,” he says.

An ice strength­ened yacht qui­et­ly at anchor on the Antarc­tic penin­su­la – the nurse dou­bles as the cook.

For exam­ple, at the sta­tions in the mid­dle of win­ter, it may not be pos­si­ble [to evac­u­ate] for sev­er­al months. That then tells you what sort of lev­el of health care pro­vi­sion you need to have.

Work­ing in an iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ment requires you to be pre­pared to extend your scope, impro­vise and take cal­cu­lat­ed risks because after all, health­care is real­ly about risk management.”

A range of non-clin­i­cal skills will also enable health pro­fes­sion­als to thrive when work­ing in an extreme, iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ment like Antarctica.

In sci­en­tif­ic, recre­ation­al, and expe­di­tion con­texts, it’s often about, what roles or func­tions can you fill out­side of health­care?’,” Edi says.

You’re not always going to be doing a lot of health care, because you’ve got healthy peo­ple. Can you dri­ve a boat? Can you dri­ve over-snow vehi­cles? Can you just muck in with a shov­el and clear the snow? What are you like at cook­ing? Can you play a musi­cal instrument?”

While nurs­ing roles with the Aus­tralian Antarc­tic Divi­sion are cur­rent­ly very lim­it­ed, there are cer­tain­ly oth­er mar­itime and expe­di­tion opportunities.

The supery­acht indus­try employs nurs­es and you may find your­self work­ing not only as a nurse, but also as a stew­ard, boat dri­ver, surf­ing or div­ing guide, or crew­ing a sailboat.

Nurs­ing at Per­ish­er Ski Resort – a great step­ping stone to even more cool stuff!

If a job in this envi­ron­ment appeals to you, Edi advis­es you to fol­low the appren­tice­ship mod­el of build­ing up skills bit by bit through a grad­ual expo­sure to more extreme work­ing envi­ron­ments, or through cours­es like Uni­ver­si­ty of Tasmania’s Expe­di­tion Med­i­cine or Med­ical Care on Off­shore and Inland Waters.

This can help to build resilience, prepar­ing you to work effec­tive­ly in a con­text where you may face the para­dox of iso­la­tion and lack of pri­va­cy, the inter­play of dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties, and what may seem to be a harsh and strange environment.

The thing that brings peo­ple back is that they just love being in that environment.

It calls to them. It sings to them, and they feel at home there as opposed to feel­ing at home in a flat in a city. You meet your tribe. It could be a sense of belong­ing that peo­ple find,” Edi says.

Do you work in an inter­est­ing com­mu­ni­ty or envi­ron­ment? We’re always look­ing for sto­ry ideas and would love to hear from you at communications@​crana.​org.​au