GP Interview - Doctoring in Antarctica

Edinburgh GP Dr Gavin Francis developed X-rays in a bath and learned to drive a bulldozer during 14 months working in Antarctica.

Dr Gavin Francis at the Hinge Zone
Dr Gavin Francis at the Hinge Zone

How did you end up spending 14 months in Antarctica?

Working in A&E at the Sick Children's Hospital in Edinburgh was my first job after a tour of the European Arctic - Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Lapland.

While working in the hospital, I was writing a book about that Arctic journey, True North - Travels in Arctic Europe. I realised then that something about the purity, beauty and silence of the High Arctic had taken hold of me and I wanted to experience the Antarctic as an even more austere and extreme environment.

I knew my only way to spend a year there was to land a job with the British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit, which I did in 2003-4, working at Halley, a research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica.

What was your role with the British Antarctic Survey?

As a doctor in the Antarctic, you hope to have nothing to do. The base is isolated for 10 months of the year, with little hope of evacuation. I did regular dental checks, set the odd broken bone and provided a neutral, confidential space for other base members to offload.

I had trained for six months in Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, for most eventualities (learning how to use the burr hole kit, for example, and give simple general anaesthetics) but I came expecting to have to find my own work. I ended up looking after the aeroplanes on the ski-way, managing a lot of the base waste, learning a language and how to drive a bulldozer, and doing a lot of cross-country skiing.

How did you cope with the extreme conditions?

You have to stick to a routine. Although there were almost four months in winter with no sunlight and four months in summer with no darkness, I made myself get up at the same time and go skiing, whatever the weather.

The most difficult times, I think, are when you've already been on base for almost a year and are waiting for the relief ship to come in.

There are so many high points, however - observing a rookery of male emperor penguins incubating their eggs in the darkness, watching the sky flood with auroras at any hour of the day, sitting on the polar plateau, in the chill stillness of -30 degs, knowing you are the only person around for hundreds of miles.

What did you gain from your Antarctic experience?

An immense sense of satisfaction, a store of extraordinary memories and the opportunity to experience a place like no other. It taught me I have the resilience to cope and draw strength from that level of isolation.

As a doctor, I think it's given me confidence, new skills (developing my own X-rays in a bath, and dental anaesthetic techniques, to name but two) and a sense of extraordinary privilege that where I practise now as a GP, there's an A&E down the road.

Was it possible to keep in touch with your family?

They now have internet access at British Antarctic Survey stations, but then they had only text email via a dial-up satellite modem.

I kept in touch with my family by writing letters, which are now wonderful to look through.

I also made friends at the station, I don't think it's possible to live in a place of such profound isolation without making connections with the people who are sharing that experience.

How does work as a part-time GP in Edinburgh compare?

My first job on my return from Antarctica was as a locum in A&E on the south side of Glasgow, so I was thrown back in at the deep end in terms of managing complex trauma. For months, I dreamt that I was back in the Antarctic.

Once I had completed GP registrar exams, my wife and I drove a motorcycle to New Zealand - for me that journey was a way of reintroducing myself to the breadth, diversity and colour of the world after a year in the very simple, binary world of ice and sky in Antarctica.

My wife and I have three children now, so working part-time as a GP and part-time as a writer fits the rhythm of family life, I've no plans to change.

There are so many challenges to being a good GP, a good dad and a good writer that for the moment, I really have no need to go looking for any more.

Empire Antarctica

Dr Francis' book, Empire Antarctica - Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, has been awarded Book of the Year (non-fiction) in the Scottish Book Awards and will compete with three other category finalists for the overall prize. A public vote begins on 1 October at www.scottishbookawards.com/vote and the winner will be announced on 2 November. Empire Antarctica is available in bookshops and online, price £16.99.

Follow Dr Francis on Twitter: @DrGavinFrancis

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