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Working in a winter wonderland

Doctor-in-training Sophie Carter Ingram is cooling her itchy feet in Antarctica at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley base — as sole medic. She tells the BMA how she's been preparing for the trip

PenguinDoctors who think they are facing winter pressures should spare a thought this year for Sophie Carter Ingram.

The emergency medicine doctor-in-training is spending her winter in one of the most remote and isolated parts of the world — Antarctica.

Facing temperatures plunging to -30°C and a three-month period with no sunlight, Dr Carter Ingram is the only medic on the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley base, 10,000 miles away from the UK.

It might not be everyone’s dream job, but Dr Carter Ingram admits she has always had ‘itchy feet’.

She explains: ‘It was advertised in the jobs section of the BMJ and I’d seen it several times over the years. Then it popped up on my email and I thought I quite fancied having a go at that. I think I had itchy feet again. Every couple of years I think I want to go and do something a bit different so it just sparked my interest at that point — it’s definitely something different.’

Unsure of whether or not she was the person they were looking for, she applied for the role.

 

Likely candidate

She says: ‘I thought they’d want people who had done loads of expeditions, but actually they don’t want that type of person as it tends not to be the job for them, being stuck inside for months at a time.’

Doctor in training Sophie CarterShe was interviewed for one of three jobs available a year ago. She says: ‘They asked me what I knew about the British Antarctic Survey and the reasons they are there, things like that. It was not your typical sort of medical interview for specialty training, it was more what you’re like as a person. When you go, you and the base commander are sort of the senior people as it were — the problem solvers.

‘The doctors take more of a pastoral role looking after people. The [interviewers] just want to know what type of person you are and how you get along with things and self-manage your stress, but also they ask about people management stuff.’

As the base she is at is the most remote of the British Antarctic Survey, she was asked about how she worked in isolation, and about her resilience and resourcefulness.

She points out: ‘There isn’t another doctor — it’s just me.’

 

Summer months

She will be caring for a maximum patient population of up to 52 during the ‘summer’ season in the Antarctic — a very short period of about eight or nine weeks. Once the ship leaves for the last time at the start of the Antarctic winter, there will 13 people on the base for eight months.

Dr Carter Ingram will be on the base for 14 months and away from the UK for about 18 months in total. She left in November after six months of training in Plymouth, where the British Antarctic Survey medical unit is based.

Speaking before her departure, she says she is excited about the trip, despite the challenges of working in such a hostile environment.

She says although she got the job 12 months ago ‘it has sort of hit me that “oh my gosh, I’m going”.

‘I’ve been doing talks for schools and things. I’ve got a sample kit bag, so I think I’m fuelling my own excitement by doing these various things. There is a little bit of nervousness and a little bit of apprehension but I think coupled with that there is a whole host of excitement at the moment. When you start a new job in a hospital there are a little bit of nerves on the first day but you get over it and just get on with it, so it’s much the same really.’

The Cardiff graduate was working at St Mary’s Hospital in London and had just finished her core trainee 2 year in emergency medicine when she discovered she had been given the job.

 

Not-so-medical duties

Her role will not be limited to medicine. Life at the research station will mean she has plenty of other duties, such as filling snow melt tanks to get water, digging fuel barrels out of the snow, and baking cakes.

Doctor in training Sophie Carter She explains: ‘It’s a bit of a tradition at Halley [research station] and it’s been going for many years. I’ve done a cake decorating course to hone my skills to continue the tradition and hopefully make some spectacular cakes while I’m there.

‘We have a chef over winter, but he has to have days off as well, so we’ll all get involved with the cooking as well as the cleaning. Because of the weather there are daily tasks that need doing so everyone gets involved.’

She may also have to turn her hand to emergency dentistry and has had training in cold injuries. Her excitement at the job is obvious, but what do her family and friends think?

‘They are very proud and excited for me. I was in Birmingham, where my mum is from originally, and we had a family get-together to say farewell. It was really, really great. Everyone is excited and proud,’ she says.

Keep up-to-date with Dr Carter Ingram’s adventure by following her blog