UTMB in Galveston recently became the new medical contractor for U.S. scientists working in Antarctica. UTMB has hired doctors and assistants for three polar research bases and also provides drugs and supplies. The new director of the program is Dr. Scott Parazynski, a former shuttle astronaut who lives here in houston. He is currently touring the medical clinics in Antarctica. KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel spoke with him before he left.
Q: UTMB is known for its near-tropical location on a Gulf Coast island, and for its resilience in the face of hurricanes. And now it’s the medical contractor for U.S. scientists in Antarctica. How did that happen?
A: Well, UTMB has been involved in extreme environments for many years, in different capacities. From providing telemedicine support to the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, to support for the United States space program and NASA’s International Space Station. It’s also (providing) delivery of care in correctional managed care here in the state of Texas. So, delivering medicine in remote environments, it does seem a little bit of strange combination to have the most tropical, warmest spot in the continental U.S. taking care of the coldest place on earth but there’s actually a lot of good logic to that selection.
Q: What does that mean, to provide medical support in Antarctica? What kind of medicine will be practiced under those conditions?
A: Well, common things occur commonly, so slips, trips, falls, coughs and runny noses of course occur. And if you add on the fact that this is the coldest, driest place on Earth – we have issues, of course, with cold injury, with altitude sickness. We have our South Pole station at about 9,300 feet in altitude, so people flying from the coastline or from sea level up to those altitudes, get altitude-related illnesses.
We have to do the medical screening of everyone that goes down there, we don’t want to send folks that have significant medical issues to a place where we don’t have operating rooms and intensive-care units. So if a person has a surgical emergency we’ve got to get them off the ice if we possibly can. And unfortunately in the middle of the Antarctic winter we can’t fly in and out.
Q: Tell me about that, tell me about ‘wintering over.’ What is that like from a medical standpoint?
A: The most challenging of those environments would be going to the South Pole for the winter. There is basically nine months a year where we can’t get an aircraft in or out. You may have heard of the case of Dr. Jerri Nielsen who detected a breast lump during her deployment and coached her team through doing a breast biopsy. They were able to make the diagnosis and they ended up airdropping chemotherapy until such time as they could get her off the ice.
During the wintertime we do psychological screening as well, because it’s a closed environment, you’re with the same people day in and day out, and rather stressful work conditions as well.
Q: So what is one of the most interesting stories you’ve heard maybe, interesting type of illness for us Houstonians to hear about whose winter is uh, pretty mild experience up here?
A: One of my staff this past Antarctic winter, his name is Dr. Dale Molé, he spent nine months at the South Pole station, through the darkness, through the winter there. One of the things that he did in the middle of the Antarctic winter — the longest night if you will — he went out and camped overnight at the South Pole and it was minus 99 degrees ambient temperature and with wind chill, it was minus 143. And he told me that even with his face fully covered, with a down suit and everything else that he could muster, it took incredible concentration to get out there, get the tent set up. They tried to sleep for a few hours and then ran back inside. (He) indicated that just taking a deep breath of air kind of singed the lungs, it was that brutally cold. So it’s hard to imagine how the early pioneers first made those treks across the continent to the South Pole. The commitment that must have taken, the misery that they endured is just beyond belief.