July 1 - Aug. 10, 2007
Scientists & Crew
The good doctor
Lat: 82° 42’ N
Long: 53° 20’ E
Air temp: -0.0°C, 32°F
Air pressure: 1023.5 mB
Winds: 2 to 4 knots
Visibility: up to 30 miles, at times
Ice conditions: thinner ice pack
August 4, 2007 (posted August 5, 2007)
by Lonny Lippsett
When I told people I was going on a research expedition to the remote Arctic Ocean, the first two questions they asked were: Will you see polar bears? What would happen if you got hurt way out there? Now I can answer the second question.
If research vessels go farther north than 82°, 30’N, the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat (SPRS) requires that they carry a doctor on board. Below that latitude, ships are still in range of helicopters that in an emergency can evacuate patients back to land to receive medical attention.
We have been well above that latitude on this expedition, at 85°N, and in the hands of Krister Ekblad, an orthopedist, or bone doctor, and retired lieutenant commander in the Swedish Amphibious Forces.
“My mission here is to get you home in one piece and alive,” he said. “The goals are: 1) to not delay the expedition—if there is a medical accident, it is my job to take care of that, so we can proceed with the expedition—and 2) to provide trauma care: If something happens—you fall or slip or crush something, or even an appendicitis, for instance—to stabilize patients, to keep them breathing, if necessary, and to stop bleeding. We’re not meant to do heroic surgery. The solution is to buy time to get the ship closer to a medivac (helicopter) to get the patient” to more extensive hospital facilities.
In recent years, there have been a few major accidents on polar expeditions (though not on those involving the SPRS). So Swedish authorities have taken steps to upgrade their polar medical facilities.
For this trip, Ekblad upgraded the icebreaker Oden’s facilities. The Swedish Defense Forces has been downsizing and getting rid of surplus field hospital equipment. Through his contacts with the army, Ekblad helped arrange to get some brand-new equipment, which otherwise would have been discarded, for Oden.
So Ekblad has helped stock the doctor’s office on board with a trauma table; intubation tubes, ventilators, and air bags to keep patients breathing; devices to monitor breathing, heart rates, temperature, oxygen levels, and other vital signs; bags of intravenous fluids and fluids for burn patients; anesthetics, antibiotics, and narcotics; drapings for minor surgeries; pins, clamps, and plaster for broken bones; a microscope to help make blood matches in case transfusions are needed; gear to treat hypothermia and to heat fluids before they are given to patients; and lots of medical instruments—all the obvious things that might be needed in an emergency.
“Then you have to use imagination to think about what could happen,” he said. “Everything you can think of, doesn’t happen.”
Pointing to a drill with an electric motor to make holes in the skull, Ekblad said, “I don’t want to use that. I hope with all my heart this is only for show.”
Ekblad earned his undergraduate degree in archaeology and history, but then returned to school at age 27 to become a doctor. He worked in hospitals for a time, joined the Swedish equivalent of the National Guard, and later joined the Swedish Amphibious Corps, until he retired as lieutenant commander.
About 10 years ago, he stopped at a gas station and saw a man wearing a blue jacket with a blue bear patch on it. “Well, you don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions,” he said. So he asked man, who turned out to be captain of an icebreaker and lived near by. “I said, ‘If you ever need a doctor, here’s my card.’ ”
Three months later, he got a call from the man, whose name he had forgotten. At first he thought the call was from a patient, and he scolded himself for not recognizing the name. He got on the phone, and the captain said, “ ‘We’re going to the North Pole. Are you coming with me?’ ” Ekblad said.
“As a kid, you’ve always been reading about polar areas,” he said. Since that first cruise to the North Pole in 1996, Ekblad has been back as a polar expedition physician to the Arctic in 2001 and 2005, and to Antarctica in 1997-98 and 2001-02.
“Once you’ve been here, there’s a kind of disease you get: You always want to go back,” Ekblad said. “People say, ‘What do you see up there?’ It’s hard to explain. How can you describe the ice?”
“And I suppose it’s also to test yourself in a way, to put yourself in a situation and see if you can get out of it,” he said. But pushed too far, that attitude causes the most danger.
“It’s always crazy things—things people shouldn’t be doing or going into places they shouldn’t—that causes accidents.” Especially in the unforgiving polar regions, people should “think before you do anything. Don’t get yourself in a corner because there’s no way out.”
The worst incidents that he has had to deal with are some broken bones and a badly damaged shoulder suffered by a botanist carrying a heavy plant press, who slipped during some rough seas. He stood by while a colleague on another ship had to extract two badly infected teeth at sea.
“People ask me, ‘What have you done? Nothing? That’s boring!’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘that’s complete success.’ ”
As for the first question, I can now answer that, too. Starting yesterday, as the Oden neared the southern edge of the ice pack, we saw the moon for the first time in weeks, and the sun was at a lower angle to the horizon, casting more golden light than the stark white light we have become accustomed to. We have seen more open water between ice floes, more Arctic cod swimming in that open water, more birds, more seals—all of which lead up the food chain to, yes, polar bears. We’ve had nine sightings in the past 24 hours, including two sets of mothers and cubs.
By tonight, Oden will leave the ice pack and be in the open water of the Barents Sea. Leaving the ice pack seems a fitting place to conclude this Dive & Discover expedition to the Gakkel Ridge. Thanks for following along, and stay tuned for Dive & Discover’s next expedition in January 2008.
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