Nurse Adventures to the South Pole

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Facts About Antarctica and the South Pole

  1. Antarctica is one and half times the size of the United States.
  2. The average thickness of ice is one mile deep.
  3. The South Pole sits on a shifting ice sheet which moves towards the ocean at a rate of 30 feet per year. This Polar Plateau is more than two miles deep.
  4. Seventy percent of the Earth’s freshwater is in Antarctic ice.
  5. Antarctica is a desert. The average annual precipitation in the interior of Antarctica is less than two inches per year. It is drier than the Sahara Desert.
  6. The average wind speed is 50 mph and the greatest winds have been recorded at 200 mph.

Source: Raytheon Polar Services.

By Kristin Rothwell, NurseZone feature writer

It’s not everyday that a nurse is able to be the care taker for a medical doctor—2,400 miles from civilization, working at the South Pole. But NurseZone corresponded with Mary Hogan, RN, via e-mail to get the full account of how she provided round the clock care to the doctor and how she came to be stationed at one of the most desolate spots on earth, Amundsen-Scott Station in the South Pole.

Nurse Mary Hogan works in the medical clinic at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. In addition to teaching CPR to all station personnel and working with the doctor in trauma team training, she also does laboratory work, X-rays, physical therapy and all routine nursing duties.

However, a turn of events this past April was anything but routine for Hogan.

Dr. Ronald Shemenski, 58, the only physician among the station’s 50 people, began experiencing gallbladder problems.

“I had the challenging task of being [Dr. Shemenski’s] primary caregiver, with almost round-the-clock nursing care for the first week,” Hogan said. “Per orders of Dr. Gerald Katz [a physician adviser for the U.S. Antarctic Program working with Swedish Medical Center in Denver, Colorado], I started IVs, administered IV medications, titrated pain medications, inserted his Nasal-Gastric tube, drew daily labs for two weeks and ran the lab tests, including white blood counts with differentials, and took and developed many abdominal X-rays.”

Thanks to telemedicine technology, Hogan performed two diagnostic ultrasounds with the encouraging guidance of Dr. Gerhold [a radiologist in Denver, Colorado], allowing them to diagnose Dr. Shemenski with pancreatitis caused by a gallstone that plugged a duct between his pancreas and gallbladder.

Hogan, who admitted to only having four hours of ultrasound training in Christchurch, New Zealand, before deployment to the South Pole, said, “Fortunately, several members of the science staff here were able to assist me with the technical aspects of the teleconference as well as necessary calibrations for the blood analysis.”

Within weeks, Dr. Shemenski was medivaced from Amundsen-Scott Station on April 26—the first ever mid-winter landing—and replaced by Dr. Betty Carlisle, who had previous experience at Amundsen-Scott, to ensure the station crew would have a physician in the event of an accident or critical health issue. Dr. Shemenski has recuperated after his gallbladder surgery in mid-June, which was postponed when doctors found that two of his arteries had significant blockage upon his return from the South Pole.

“The combined efforts of the very supportive winter-over crew made the subsequent evacuation of Dr. Ron Shemenski a success,” Hogan said. “The support from the station members during that time was exemplary.”

Opportunity Knocks

Working and living where no nurse has gone before, Hogan is providing medical support and working as a heavy equipment operator at the geographic South Pole—located 10,000 feet above sea level with temperatures reaching as low as –100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it’s not the first time she’s worked on “The Ice”–a name coined by those who have worked on the land-base continent that is 98 percent covered with ice.

During the late ’70s, Hogan worked as a civilian heavy equipment operator in Antarctica. Never expecting to return to the continent after having a family, an opportunity came again in 1999. Her opportunity came after she and her family took their fishing boat from Alaska to New Zealand. The family adventure landed her an offer by the Antarctic office in Christchurch, New Zealand, to work as a nurse in Antarctica. She jumped at the chance but the adventures weren’t over yet for Hogan. This year, while she and her family were volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in New Zealand, Hogan received an unexpected offer to go to the South Pole.

“I looked at the offer as a gift because I hadn’t been to the South Pole in 22 years,” said Hogan, who has specialized in ICU/ER acute care and long-term care nursing for 12 years.

South Pole or Bust

In February, after passing through required medical, dental and psychiatric evaluations (reviewed by Dr. Katz and others), Hogan—dressed in full winter gear as required for flight—boarded a military aircraft in Christchurch, New Zealand, and headed for McMurdo Station, the largest station in Antarctica. From there, she flew the 800 mile, four hour trip aboard an LC-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop ski-equipped airplane, to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where she will live and work until October. Typically, a crew of up to 200 people spend four months in the South Pole during the austral summer when there’s daylight 24 hours a day. Only 50 people continue to work through the entire year, during the austral winter, stationed at the barren South Pole.

“Leaving Christchurch, New Zealand, in February, which is the end of their summer, and landing on ‘the Ice,’ is an extreme environmental contrast,” she said. “It was 60 degrees Fahrenheit in New Zealand and –50 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived at the Pole. It can take several days to acclimate to the cold and altitude.”

By mid- to late April, the South Pole entered the austral winter, which means the sun is more than 18 degrees below the horizon causing complete darkness until the middle of September when the sun returns.

“The night sky is beautiful,” Hogan said, “with bright stars, auroras and the moon is up for two weeks each month.”

Despite the constant darkness, the crew at the South Pole station work six days a week, nine hours a day. Currently, the station houses 50 people; 14 in science, researching everything from the study of the origins of the universe to the behavior of the ozone’s depletion; 13 in construction; and the rest, including Hogan, in station support.

Everyone living at the station is housed in dormitory-style rooms with roommates and shared bathroom facilities. For breaks from the long work days, the station offers crafts, exercise equipment, libraries, movies and educational classes.

Hogan explained that while much of the activity takes place in well-heated buildings within a large unheated geodesic dome, her second role as an equipment operator requires her to work outdoors.

“Our [family’s] lifestyle of commercial fishing in Alaska helped me be prepared for the physical demands of the South Pole,” said Hogan, who explained that working outside requires many layers, especially on the head, face and hands. “We work outside with wind chill factors exceeding –150 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Hogan, who learned how to use heavy equipment while working in Antarctica during the 1970s, is currently the only woman at the Pole driving and operating heavy equipment, including a 16-ton Caterpillar 953-C Track Loader. She uses the tractor to move cargo, snow, fuel and for unloading the C-130s in the summer since flights to the South Pole are usually halted during the austral winter because of the extreme cold and darkness. She is also in charge of the recycling program, which is heavily implemented for environmental protection.

Since Hogan, along with those on the new station construction project, must endure the icy outdoor weather, she said, “Accidents are one of the biggest concerns, along with frostbite.” Another health issue is altitude sickness.

Returning Home

Though Hogan still has a few months before she returns home again, she said, “I’ll miss the environment and self-sufficient way of life, as well as the autonomy I’ve experienced as a nurse here.

“Nursing has opened so many doors for me,” said Hogan, who has worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Billings, Montana, South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska, and Jefferson General Hospital in Port Townsend, Washington—where she works temporarily when she and her family take the boat to Washington. “I love the knowledge-base nursing has given me and I feel so fortunate to be able to use it.”

Once off the continent, she plans to fulfill her goal of volunteering on a Mercy Medical Ship—the original reason and intent for why she entered the nursing profession in the first place.

“I never expected to have the opportunity to be the first nurse at the South Pole,” she said. “Nursing has been a very rewarding and fulfilling profession.”

Although she has enjoyed her time at the Pole, Hogan said she misses her family and has no plans to return to Antarctica, at least “not at the moment.”

Note: The U.S. Antarctic Program is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs. Raytheon Polar Services, which is under contract by the NSF, provides science, operations and maintenance support to sustain year-round research programs at three U.S. locations in Antarctica, two research vessels in the Antarctic region and several field camps. To find out more about the program and/or employment, visit www.raytheon.com.

July 27, 2001 © 2001 NurseZone.com. All Rights Reserved.