Thursday, 14 October 2010

Antarctic pre-deployment training (part I)

In olden times, preparing for a journey into the Antarctic wilderness entailed little more than having a cup of tea, growing a luxurious moustache and then waving goodbye, possibly forever, to your loved ones. Nowadays things are a bit more sophisticated, and the BAS Antarctic Pre-deployment Training Course comprises a series of lectures, workshops, discussion groups and training exercises that are designed to prepare you mentally, physically and emotionally for what you are about to undertake. The first week of training took place at Girton College, Cambridge, which is an exact replica of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the remaining three days took place in a field in Derbyshire, presumably to give us our first taste of sub-Antarctic type weather.

Girton College, Cambridge

Anyone for quidditch?

Magical creatures at Girton

In the first few days we learned a lot about BAS and how it works. There were lectures about the science, which is divided into four rather grandly titled areas- Uncovering the Past, Understanding the Present, Predicting the Future and Exploring the Unknown. I’m not exactly sure where my own topic- Molesting the Penguins- fits into this scheme, but no doubt I will find out in the months ahead. Then there were lectures about the huge logistical operation that allows the science to happen, including maintaining the ships and planes, building the new base at Halley, keeping all the buildings and machinery running, sending expeditions into ‘deep field’ and making sure all the personnel on base don’t go crazy and start chasing each other round with an axe. It is an impressive undertaking, and far more money is spent on operations and logistics each year than on the actual science programs.

A full three days of Antarctic pre-deployment training were dedicated to first aid skills. On arriving at Girton College each of us was presented with a very fat first aid manual, which contained instructions for all sorts of exciting things like how to reduce a dislocated shoulder (be quick and brutal), how to administer intra-muscular painkillers (upper, outer quadrant of the buttock) and how to insert a nasopharyngeal breathing tube (ky jelly is involved). As well as the detailed manual there was also a small, pocket version containing the most important points to remember in a medical emergency. This ‘cheat sheet’ has two main advantages over the original. First, it is laminated, and therefore immune to any stray splashes of blood, vomit or ky jelly that might erupt from the patient, and second, it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover.

The emergency medical situations covered by the DON’T PANIC guide are fairly predictable- choking, shock, seizures, cardiac arrest and so on. I was a little taken aback, however, to discover a page devoted to DEATH. As far as I’m aware DEATH is a medical condition which no amount of first aid, however enthusiastically applied, is likely to improve. Nevertheless, the guide lists the four most common symptoms of DEATH (no pulse, no breathing, no response to pain, pupils fixed and unresponsive) before going on to warn ‘Caution! Sometimes death is difficult to diagnose. If in any doubt treat as if the patient is alive’. Apart from this warning there are no real guidelines on how to treat DEATH, except, I suppose, the implication that one shouldn’t be too hasty about burying the body.

Getting plastered at Girton

Joe and Jon show off their handiwork

On the last day of first aid training some actors, made up with horrific injuries, were brought in to reproduce a series of first aid scenarios that we might be likely to encounter in Antarctica. We then had to figure out what was wrong with each one and attempt to sort them out. These kinds of training scenarios always scare the bejesus out of me because they highlight just exactly how useless and indecisive I would be in a real emergency. If the patient is unconscious and not breathing them I can handle it, since CPR has been drummed into me on numerous occasions, but if the patient is any more alert then this- walking around, talking and so on- then I am often at a loss over what to do. My usual tactic would be to pat them reassuringly on the arm, say “there, there” a few times, dial 999 and wait for the pro’s to arrive. In Antarctica, and particularly on Bird Island which has no resident doctor, it might take several days or even weeks for the pro’s to arrive, and there’s only so much reassuring patting and there-thereing that you can do to someone who is, say, bleeding heavily from a head wound. Still, if the injury is serious enough then with any luck the patient will eventually lapse into unconsciousness and stop breathing, at which point I will know exactly what to do.

If your patient tries to get away, here is a simple way to immobilise them


  1. To this:

    "As far as I’m aware DEATH is a medical condition which no amount of first aid, however enthusiastically applied, is likely to improve."

    I must respond this:

    "Did you not learn ANYTHING from Lost?!"

  2. As far as I’m aware DEATH is a medical condition which no amount of first aid, however enthusiastically applied, is likely to improve. Nevertheless, the guide lists the four most common symptoms.

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