It is pretty much a tradition: Every year an advertisement appears in the medical specialist newspaper “Das Deutsche Ärzteblatt”: The Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) is looking for a doctor with a sense of adventure. With the will to go to one of the most hostile areas on this planet for 14 months – nine of them in absolute isolation. Six in the dark.
We are looking for a doctor as station manager and medical supervisor for the new winter team at the only German research station in Antarctica, the Neumayer Station.
"I've stumbled across the ad several times ... and at some point I thought to myself: "Just try it!" says Tim Heitland. He is a thoroughbred doctor, surgical consultant, specialist in visceral surgery and proctologist. Additionally the native of Munich also holds the qualification for emergency medicine. So technically very well qualified. “The nerves only came after the acceptance by the AWI and before going to Bremerhaven for preparation phase. From time to time I had doubts as to whether it was a smart decision..."
The preparation phase. This is probably the most important thing for a stay near the South Pole, especially for winter. Antarctica is the driest and coldest continent on our planet. The temperatures only reach values around freezing point in the warmest month of January in the west and are otherwise far below the annual average of -55° C. The reason for this is the flat angle of the sun's rays. The little solar energy that arrives in Antarctica is also reflected by the snow – simply put: it's cold. Always.
Add to that raging strong winds. In some areas wind speeds of over 300 km/h were measured on 340 days of the year. For comparison: Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated large parts of the southern United States in 2005 and is considered one of the most devastating natural disasters in history, peaked at "only" 280 km/h.
Neumayer III, the third Neumayer station of the AWI, is located in a more temperate climate on the Ekström Ice Shelf. Nevertheless: “The memory of cold, extreme cold, really extreme cold, and again just really cold, remains," wrote Tim Heitland at the end of his last stay on Neumayer III in the (absolutely worth reading) blog "AtkaX-press.“ The training lasts four months. Based in the Bremerhaven-Reinkenheide Clinic. Here everything is organised that is required to live as a community for 9 months on roughly the size of a quarter of a football field. Without any outside help. “All planes and helicopters will be relocated at the beginning of the Antarctic winter – to the Arctic. That alone is a two-week flight. And even if we had an airplane, the weather conditions are so bad there in winter that flying is out of the question.“ In the event of an emergency, however, the doctor is not entirely on his own. “All team members received intensive training in Reinkenheide for two weeks before leaving. So everyone can lend a hand. In addition, the equipment on Neumayer III really is first class.“ A full operating theater, C-arm, dental x-ray, even a video laryngoscope, corpuls3 and corpuls. mission LIVE. “Out here, on the eternal ice, we depend on the possibilities of telemedicine. We have used this in the past with another system on corpuls 08/16, but corpuls.mission LIVE is in a different league. How elegantly the system from corpuls3 and corpuls.mission LIVE is integrated is great. If the worst comes to the worst, we have professional help on Neumayer III from the Reinkenheide Clinic within seconds. Our colleagues in Bremerhaven see exactly what we see and that helps a lot.“
Other institutions have also noticed this. “As a doctor, I don't just sit around when there is nothing happening and nobody to cure. We are working on a study launched by the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, the Charité in Berlin, the University of Pennsylvania and NASA, supported by DLR and AWI. This involves longterm space travel, such as an expedition to Mars, and the following questions: What influence does isolation have on psychology and physiology? How does the immune system react in this low-stimulation environment, like the vegetative nervous system? Are the cognitive abilities, the ability to react, three-dimensional thinking and the ability to orientate oneself declining? And, of course, what is the dynamic within the group? For the study, we take blood, saliva and all kinds of other samples and freeze them. Cryopreservation is less of a problem here. We wear activity trackers and regularly have 24-hour ECGs. We even have the original NASA simulator for docking modules to the International Space Station ISS here. Which by the way is not that easy. There are also numerous psychological questionnaires as well as preparation and follow-up with examinations in Berlin. In its isolation and with our small team, Neumayer III is ideal for something like this. Much better than, for example, the USA stations. There are just too many people there in winter. Sure, you could just lock nine people in a container at the DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen and say: "We won't open the door for a few months now", but basically everyone knows that in an emergency, the door would be opened. We have no such door on Neumayer III.“
Comparing Neumayer III to a space station is not that far-fetched. “There are around 80 stations in Antarctica, less than half of which are occupied in winter.
Our closest neighbour, the South African station, is around 250 kilometres away. You can drive that in Germany in a few hours. For us it's a three-day trip in the Snowcat – in good weather. Nevertheless, we are all in contact, we send each other virtual postcards over the internet and we have the tradition of the "48-hour film festival.“ Here, a station is given five terms relating to the animal world – plants are not included – and then they have to make a film about it within 48 hours."
Photos: Tim Heitland, S. Christmann, AWI