Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why Can’t We think? Why Are We Grumpy?

I can’t think as clearly as I did six months ago. This is common around base. Being in a good mood is often a choice, as opposed to an instinct. Forgetfulness, mental and physical fatigue, irrational behavior, moodiness, and trying to talk to someone who is only returning a 1,000 yard stare are common occurrences. When encountered, these occurrences are excused and even laughed at. They are just a fact of wintering over in Antarctica. We call it going toasty and it is often chalked up to Polar T3 syndrome, but I think there might be more causes.

Polar T3 syndrome – Triiodothyronine (T3) is a thyroid hormone. Polar T3 syndrome is caused when the body tries to warm itself by consuming its reserves of T3 in the muscles, which leaves a deficiency for the brain. This hoarding reaction is similar to hypothermia when the body shifts its resources to the core and ‘lizard brain’ sets in. In one study of people living in Antarctica for an extended amount of time, their energy intake was increased by approximately 40% without a change in body weight. Almost everyone’s body temperature runs a little low while they are here, so I’d expect the body would be trying to warm itself.

Seasonal Affective Disorder - Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is well known to those who live in an area that has a dark season. It causes seasonal mood swings, specifically depression in the winter. In the TV show Northern Exposure, Dr. Joel Fleishman actually gets Reverse SAD. The extended day in Alaska makes him so up and gives him so much energy that he never sleeps. With SAD in the Northern hemisphere, you’d be down in the winter and up in the summer. The cause is believed to be a lack of sunlight, but the data is inconclusive so far. A common form of therapy is to spend thirty minutes a day in a light room.

Circadian Rhythm - As every parent tells their children, a good night’s sleep will allow you to perform better on a test. If you aren’t sleeping well, you aren’t going to be thinking well. Everyone has their own natural rhythm whether they are a morning lark or a night owl and they tend to stick to that. To maintain that rhythm, we use environmental time cues like sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately, we don’t have those here and a lot of people do have trouble sleeping.

Monotony - The idea of Antarctica is very exciting. The reality doesn’t always match it. Don’t get me wrong, this place is beautiful and I am constantly awed by it. However, our day to day time here is often very reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day. We do the same things day after day, week after week. For a further elaboration on this, please check out B-Neslon’s brilliant post about day to day life here.

Overworked - This is pretty much an extension of monotony, but slightly different. We work ten hour days with a one hour lunch break every day, six days a week. We get a single two day weekend per month. We might not be overwhelmed with stuff to do, but always having to be at work takes a certain toll. We all knew exactly what we signed up for, but I think the lack of a true chance to recuperate is a contributing cause to our mental fatigue. I know that I don’t plan to ever do a full year contract again because the cumulative fatigue takes away from my appreciation of the experience.

Confinement and Isolation – Simply put, solitary confinement is considered punishment in jail. While we have nothing even remotely as severe as that going on, we are cut off from our existing support networks and the physical world. It can be emotionally tough and likely to contribute to moodiness. On the other hand, some people prefer the winter because they love the isolation. Some days, I enjoy it. Lots of days, I think of good people back home.

Crowding – This last one is on here for moodiness as well. When you spend time with the same group of people long enough, certain quirks might start to bother you more. I believe most of have experienced some form of this with our families, who we’ve probably spent more time with than anyone else. A couple weeks ago, human resources told people to be careful what they say because things that might have been funny at the beginning of the season aren’t necessarily funny anymore.

Consumption – Just before I sent this blog out the door, a couple people suggested some things that I hadn't thought of. The first one was that the consumption of alcohol tends to happen at higher levels down here. Recovering from drinking can definitely fatigue the body. The other suggestion was the quality of food. I think the galley does a great job with what they are given, but there is only so much they can do without fresh ingredients. The things that are sent down here to be cooked are probably sent because they last and are cheap, not because they taste good.

“People on [polar] expeditions generally undergo psychological changes resulting from exposure to long periods of isolation and confinement, and the extreme physical environment. Symptoms include disturbed sleep, impaired cognitive ability negative affect, and interpersonal tension and conflict. . . . Numerous explorers will enjoy the entire experience and enjoy positive reactions to the challenges of the environment. They thrive on the feeling of having successfully overcome these challenges. They quote such expressions as "the beauty and grandeur of the land, ice, and sea, the camaraderie and mutual support of the team, the admirable qualities of their leader, and the thrill of facing and overcoming the challenges of the environment." – LA Palinkas and P Suedfeld

Is this short list of hardships, that past winterovers say will take a month off ice to overcome, worth it? You can bet on it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Medicine at McMurdo

McMurdo General waiting room.

I've never fancied the idea of needing a hospital. I prefer to avoid them if I can, especially down here in Antarctica. In such a harsh environment, I just couldn't imagine them having everything they needed. However, after numerous visits throughout the year for physical therapy or to fix computers, I've slowly discovered that they do have what they need and more. I'd speculate the only place they come up short is with specialty cases and they probably have a lot them covered too.

Supply closet of stuff.

The good stuff is in the locked pharmacy.

The two bed emergency room and operating room if need be.

Professionally, this next room has been interesting. They use a lot of electronic equipment in the lab. When it isn't working, they have me come take a look at it. I feel confident with computers, but a lot less so with electronic medical equipment. So far, I think we have straightened everything out. However, I'm not so sure I'd want to rely on it either . . . .


My favorite fix in the lab was on the E-Chem(?) machine. I only had to change the battery, but I had no idea where it was, how to do it, and was scared of breaking the machine by exploring. I found the instruction manual, which, of course, had no useful information in it. I called their tech support hot line and told them I needed to change the battery. They informed me that only their technicians were qualified or allowed to do it. I informed them that I was in the middle of an Antarctic winter and they couldn't visit if they wanted to. He acquiesced and told me how to make the simple swap. That line has gotten me what I needed a few times while I've been down here. I think the only ones who stood firm were Canon on the firmware for their copiers.


After taking x-rays the old fashioned way, we do all of our X-ray processing on a computer using a special scanner and software. It is a great system that also allows us to easily send x-rays off continent to have a specialist look at them. We can also process films the old fashioned way if the computer system were to fail. Luckily, that hasn't happened. Because the system relies on a computer, I've been able to get a lot closer look at the process than normal. It is just another way that my job is great down here. I get to see so many different things, that even if they frustrate me, I don't get bored.

The ward with the video teleconference machine in the back.


Ophthalmology and private exam room.

My most active role in medical is making sure that their computers, printers, and copiers work, which can often be a chore because I'm not trained as a printer or copier technician. However, my most important role at medical is probably making sure the video teleconferencing (VTC) machine is working. They can use the VTC to let doctors in Denver or at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) see a patient for themselves. This might let them get a better look at a rash. We can also hook up different equipment, scopes and ultrasound, to the machine so specialists can guide us through a diagnosis or get a closer look at something.

The doc performs an ultrasound on a patient's leg with UTMB staff using the VTC.

Hyperbaric chamber

I was a little confused when I saw that we had a hyperbaric chamber. I guess the Navy brought it down. We still have divers in the Sound over the summer so it is possible that we'd need it.

The final room in medical is the physical therapy clinic. I probably spend more time there as a patient that anywhere else. Our current PT, Lisa, is fantastic. I think she is the best PT I've ever worked with. It isn't just the methodology she uses, but she keeps working until she finds an angle to motivate you. She's great.

Physical Therapy

Perk of the continent - free ambulance rides.

Another Hut Point hike

Mt. Discovery

On Saturday, I was hoping to go for a lunch time hike so I went to get my gear and on the way, I saw a bunch of people just staring across the sea and into the distance. The horizon looked wonderful, but there was something different about it. For the first time since the sun went down, you could see the Royal Society Range across the sea lit up by the horizon light. The light had been catching Mt. Discovery for a few days, but the whole range was something new. Oddly enough, as I am going back through my pictures I don't have any of the range.

Tent and Inaccessible Islands under nacreous clouds, I think.

I'm curious if all these posts about the horizon, the sun, and our reaction to it are getting old. I feel like I'm posting about it a lot, but I'd lying if I didn't say it strikes us every day as beautiful. Many of us are looking forward to and thinking about it all the time. Missing it has defined this experience for some of us. Every time, I see the horizon lit up at the point, I get as excited as a kid going to the carnival. This day was particularly cool because the mountains were lit up and the horizon was a great orange, but you couldn't see the brightest spot until you got to the tip of the point.

Hut Point lit up by the horizon light.

I think this might have been the first day that I felt like it was daytime out. The light kicking up over the Discovery Ridge was more white than not. I even overheard someone joking at lunch that they didn't know what all the blue stuff in the sky was and that they were scared. The end is coming and as excited as I am to keep seeing the night, I'm ready for the day.

Inaccessible Island under some great colors, maybe nacreous clouds.

More pictures

Just after I got back from the A-Frame

It's a slow day at work so far which is a good thing. I managed to put a good crick in my neck while doing some strength training on Monday morning. I can barely turn my head to the left or right. I'm not a fan. It should heal up in a few days though. I think I just strained a muscle.

Anyway, these are two fun pictures that I didn't put up from last week. The first one is from Chandler driving up the transition road that I hated so much after running it during the Turkey Trot race. The second picture I really liked because the sky was really dark, but these bright nacreous clouds were floating by breaking up the darkness. They were amazing. I think they might be the same clouds from my tucker ride, but different colors because I was seeing them later in the day.

Nacreous clouds just after I got back from my tucker ride.