Updated on November 5, 2015
Going to Antarctica is not easy. The remoteness and the special legal regulations of this place require special preparation.
It is actually only a few days ago that I got the green lights to go to the Antarctic field trip this fall, even though my effective preparation started already at the beginning of last July. The reason is the extensive medical preparation and controlling that is required by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). The so called “Physical Qualification” (or short PQ) forms contain 14 pages and build the basis for your qualification to go to Antarctica. If you don’t deliver all the required details of this document and/or don’t pass the review done by UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch – USAP PQ contractor… welcome to Antarctic jargon 🙂 ), you are not going, no matter what (there are a few examples where it didn’t work out – and not because people were not healthy enough). So it is essential to make sure this is not in your way.
The PQ contains a visit at a medical doctor, which has to check you for your general health and go trough a list of about 20 tests (15 different blood tests, heart tests…) and provide proof of each test. All the test results are needed in a printed version and added to you PQ documents. The same is true for your dental checks, which includes a dentist visit and an x-ray of each tooth. Again, all the papers must be collected (including the originals of the x-rays) and added to your packet.
This finally makes a document of about 30 pages with all your health details and easily takes a month to get all together. Then you send all of this UTMB and wait for an answer (the little nerve wrecking part of this is that you have to send it by post and original documents are required…). This takes a couple of weeks and in my case my doctor forgot to do one blood test in first place. This means you go again to drain blood, make the test, a week later you have the results and you send them again and you wait again… until the next message from UTMB. I had to repeat this exercise three times because of some other details of my PQ… You can now imagine why it can easily take 3 months to get your USAP PQ… The good side or it? Yes! I am healthy!
No doubt, it is a lot of bureaucracy (not to mention what it needs to plan such a field season from scratch!), but you have to keep in mind where you go. There is no hospital on Antarctica. Only in McMurdo – the biggest Antarctic station and our logistical hub – there is primitive medical care available. In case of a serious medical problem, first you have to make it to McMurdo (~1h helicopter flight in our case) and from there to Christchurch, New Zealand (~6h flight), to get proper treatment. And all of this service would be organized and paid by the USAP… understandable that all medical risks are being ruled out beforehand. Also, McMurdo seems to be quite a good place for germs to be spread because of the dense living situation there. That’s why we are particularly asked to wash hands and pay attention to this situation while we are there.
As mentioned at the beginning, it is not easy to go there… 🙂