Thoughts on Leaving: Soccer, Broken Bones, and a Very Personal MedEvac

As you may know, Sundays are our only day off here in Antarctica, and we have to make the most of them. There are all kinds of community-led activities, writing and photography classes, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, impromptu craft parties and wine tastings in the greenhouse.

This Sunday, I went to yoga and spent a while in the sauna before heading for dinner, and Daniel went to the first soccer tournament of the year—soccer players practice a few hours every week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and it’s a big part of Daniel’s exercise regime, something I remember him telling me on the phone in 2009 when he first came down to the ice. During the game, Daniel had a collision with another player, both men running full speed and focusing on the ball instead of each other. He fell and got up, and finished out the tournament.

But when he was still in pain later that evening, we decided to call Medical, even though Sunday is their day off too. Something seemed wrong; it looked like there was at least swelling on the left side of Daniel’s face, if not a maybe-different shape than normal. The PA was on call, and after looking for a bit and making sure Daniel wasn’t suffering a concussion or any head injuries, she called in the doctor as well. After poking and prodding and examining and xrays, the prognosis was a broken zygomatic arch, Daniel’s left cheekbone, and he was immediately scheduled for the next flight out. An unresolved fracture is an automatic NPQ (the opposite of PQ, when we are physically qualified to come to the ice at the beginning of each season).

That night, we sat together in bed after packing Daniel’s stuff, dealing with his physical pain, regretting this seemingly small accident, and grappling with our mutual feelings about the season having to end like this, but having flashbacks to food poisoning and malaria scares in third world countries and being grateful that here, at least we speak the language and understand the medical system. We decided together that it made the most sense for me to stay and carry out my contract, since I’d be leaving in a week and a half anyhow.

And then before I could think straight or even realize this was real, he was on the plane and I was crying on the runway. His two sweet coworkers stood on either side of me as we watched taxi and takeoff, the contrail behind the plane like a physical thing, looking as though the runway itself buckled up to assist the plane’s loft.

He is in New Zealand now, getting ready for appointments and maybe a small surgery, and hopefully will be ready for a real vacation in about a week when I get back. I miss him a lot, and it feels weird and hollow and different to be here without him in this big, cold bed, but I know that this is the best way to have a medEvac; finish your soccer game, pack your own bags, walk yourself unescorted onto the plane, and be ready for a kiwi roadtrip in a week. And I know it could have been so much worse, so I’m grateful for that.

And I’m grateful for the community response to this, the support I’ve gotten, the off-ice medical and insurance help that Daniel is and will be getting, and the hugs and offers for help packing and airplane bag lunches from friends. I’m even more ready to go, now that work is getting frantic with things to finish before station close and people, including me, are dirty and cranky and just over being here. The funny thing is though, I know we want to come back.

So here’s to fast healing and minimal pain, to friends who stand beside you when things go wrong, to the end of this season, and perhaps to the beginning of the next one.


Emergency Air Drop, Night Vision Goggles and Barrels of Fire

The folks wintering in Antarctica have had a rough season. In June, right around midwinter, an employee at McMurdo was ill enough that the National Science Foundation had to medevac them to Christchurch for treatment. This is pretty rare, and only carried out in the most extreme of situations. (Read the official news report here and check out a firsthand report by a McMurdo winterover here.)

And now, the US Air Force has performed a successful air drop of “urgently needed medical supplies” for a Pole winterover. This was the first emergency air drop to Pole in almost ten years, and the very first performed with a C-17. The Air Force flew the 800 miles to Pole, and using night vision equipment to spot the drop zone lit by the ground crew with burning 55-gallon drums, they aimed two 200-pound cargo pallets equipped with parachutes and pushed them out of the C-17.

From inside the C-17. Photo credit Chief Master Sgt. Jim Masura,
The drop zone in the distance, a few hours after the drop as seen from the station. Photo by Christy Schultz

It goes without saying that we’re crossing our fingers for the crew at South Pole in their dark isolation; the first plane sill won’t be able to land until late October. I’ve heard that it’s easier to mount a rescue expedition to the international space station than it is to get to the South Pole in the winter (but don’t have a source on that, so don’t quote me–does anyone know?). From what I can tell, the combined forces of the South Pole air drop team and the US Air Force was a perfect match, and everything went as well as could possibly have been expected, and the winterovers’ practice during the summer season really paid off.

South Pole air drop ground crew. Photo by Christy Schultz
Dan the Fuelie supervises the burn barrels in a summer air drop practice last season. 12-11-2010

This article in the Antarctic Sun has really interesting information on the logistics of the air drop: “Personnel used GPS coordinates to place each barrel at a precise location for the drop zone, located about two miles from the main station. It took heavy equipment operator Rob Shaw about 30 hours to groom, or flatten, the snow around the drop zone.”

The weather at Pole during the air drop was rather warm according to the article, about -70F; from what I understand, nearly none of our vehicles run at below -80F, and many won’t run under -55 or so. The current temperature is back down to -90F. I’m not sure what they do if they have to perform an air drop in colder temps when the heavy equipment really just won’t run.