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Meet the Doctors of Antarctica

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When physician Dale Mole stepped off the C-130 turboprop plane that had landed at the South Pole in January 2012, he felt a twinge of disappointment. It was only minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Granted, it was summer—but he had expected worse.

“The average winter temperature is minus 85,” he says. As the weeks and months passed, however, the thermostat dropped as low as minus 107. Mole’s exhaled breath would freeze in mid-air; no one dared leave bare flesh exposed more than 10 or 15 seconds; teeth would ache for hours after exposure.

Once, as Mole was cresting a snow bank, his face mask froze. “I had to remove my mask to breathe and the super-cooled air felt like ice daggers in my throat,” he says. “I was afraid my windpipe was going to freeze, which could prove fatal.”

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at twilight. Courtesy Dale Mole.

In Antarctica, the coldest and most isolated place on the planet, even the simple act of breathing becomes an endurance test. Home to three permanent U.S. expedition outposts—McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and Palmer Station—it’s inaccessible eight months out of the year due to oppressive weather conditions. Researchers from a variety of countries fly in with the knowledge they’re about to be effectively cut off from the world.

But what happens when a medical situation arises? More than 2800 miles from the nearest hospital in New Zealand, Antarctic crews must rely on the expertise of a single physician responsible for upwards of 150 people. (The number varies by season.) Working autonomously, the doctor is charged with analyzing x-rays and blood work, providing aftercare, overseeing pharmaceutical duties and even performing dentistry. Serious conditions that could be managed in a major facility become radical emergencies. Surgery is a major undertaking, and intensive care can’t be sustained.

Such adversity is not for the claustrophobic or easily shaken. But for Mole, volunteering was academic. “I signed up,” he says, “because I wanted the challenge of providing medical care in the most remote and austere environment on Earth.”

The Right Stuff

The view from the observation deck. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Scott Parazynski, M.D., had spent 16 years in NASA's astronaut corps and was an experienced mountaineer when the offer came to become Chief Medical Officer overseeing healthcare for the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Having tended to climbers all the way to the summit of Mount Everest, he was familiar with the psychological and physical demands of practicing medicine without a net.

“It takes a really broad skill set,” he says. “I call it MacGyver medicine. What can you do to diagnose and treat conditions in a really remote environment when the chips are down? You have to invent solutions on the fly.”

Physicians who volunteer typically have backgrounds as surgeons or emergency room veterans. When Parazynski selected former submarine medical officer Mole to go to the South Pole, the 63-year-old underwent a rigorous screening: an EKG to assess cardiovascular health, an ultrasound of the gallbladder to rule out any simmering problems, and a psychological test.

Once approved, Mole left Denver for New Zealand, which connected him to McMurdo Station. There, a dentist gave him a crash course on fillings and root canals. After a week, he boarded a flight to the South Pole, where his patient base of 49 scientists and researchers studied everything from geophysics to astronomy in a fuel-powered compound; the dry air (the area averages seven percent humidity) forces residents to guzzle four to six liters of water a day. Mole was careful not to touch any metal with his bare hands—it can take the skin right off—and investigated his professional tools, a mixture of modern and museum-worthy.

“Some of the items I remember from visiting the doctor in the 1950s,” he says. There was a World War II embalming kit, a straitjacket, and glass syringes with reusable needles. “Some of our lab equipment was also designed for use on animals, but was perfectly suitable for humans. The x-ray unit was the portable kind used by veterinarians, but it worked.”

Ventilators, ultrasound, and critical life support devices are also present, though luxuries like an MRI device would be cost-prohibitive owing to the small population. “You’re relying upon clinical judgment and your resourcefulness,” Parazynski says.

Because the Antarctic workers are carefully screened for any major conditions, Mole and other physicians frequently find themselves treating conditions common to any industrial environment: slips, common colds, and lacerations. The plummeting temperatures and non-existent humidity also give rise to dry skin conditions and respiratory ailments. One, “the McMurdo crud,” is a hacking cough that tends to nag at patients.

Dawn at the American base. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Despite the cold, frostbite is not as common as one might expect. Mole saw only a few cases, albeit one that resulted in a patient losing part of an ear. Most injuries, he says, “were sports related, as many played basketball, volleyball and dodge ball on their off-duty time.”

Sean Roden, M.D., who stayed during the comparatively warmer summer months prior to Mole’s arrival, recalls that altitude sickness was a problem for many: Antarctic stations are 9500 feet above sea level. Staff and crew take Diamox, a drug that helps adjust the body’s chemistry to the environment, but it isn’t always effective. “I had a headache for over two months,” Roden says. “Everyone was just constantly short of breath, had a headache, had a hard time sleeping. You get winded just brushing your teeth.”

Summer also invites a scourge of insomniacs, with the sun refusing to go away and inhabitants putting up blackout shutters to try and cope with the irregular seasons. “People were walking up and down hallways, not really awake, not asleep,” Roden says, like zombies.”

When Doctors Get Sick

The modest inpatient ward. Courtesy Dale Mole.

It’s a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare: alone in the Antarctic, with the lone physician too ill to care for anyone else. Modern screenings have reduced that possibility, but the area has been home to a series of legendary crises.

Some countries require their doctors undergo an appendectomy to ward off the potential for appendicitis. If that seems excessive, consider the case of Leonid Rogozov, a Russian physician who diagnosed himself with a swollen appendix during a 1961 expedition. Trapped in the Austral winter with no flights in or out—the harsh weather can prevent aircraft from functioning properly—he deputized a few researchers to be his surgical assistants and cut out his own organ using only local anesthesia. He recovered in just two weeks.

In 1999, Jerri Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast. She performed a biopsy using only an ice cube to numb the area; upon discovering a cancerous growth, she had drugs air-dropped to her until she was able fly out for treatment.

If anything similar were to occur today, physicians would have the benefit of teleconferencing with colleagues. “We can look remotely in someone’s ear, eyes, listen to their heart, share views of ultrasound or EKG tracing,” Parazynski says. “We can look over their shoulder and be part of the decision making process.”

That assumes, however, communications are working. Mole says Internet access was available only a few hours at a stretch. Without it, “You rely upon textbooks you either brought with you or were available in the small South Pole medical library.”

Dental concerns are treated here. Note the armrests for ease of gripping and writhing. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Much of a physician’s time is spent in preventative preparation, training staff in the event of an emergency. During his stay, Roden orchestrated the medical evacuation of a crew member who had fallen ill with a neurological issue more than 400 kilometers from base. “We had rehearsed it in a drill, so we were prepped for it.” (The patient recovered and returned to work.)

Off-duty, Roden says numerous groups were devoted to salsa dancing, knitting, or Doctor Who viewing parties; Mole read, ran four to six miles a day on the treadmill, and ventured outside sporting at least six layers of insulation—anything to stretch out from his cramped 6 x 10-foot living quarters. He says he experienced none of the depression that can result from a lack of sunlight for months at a time.

“Being at the South Pole was like living on another planet, one with only one day and one night per year,” he says. “There was always something unique to experience, so I was never bored or felt an overwhelming desire to leave.”

Breaking the Ice

The remains of the cables used to power the station, stacked up by workers and dubbed "Spoolhenge." Courtesy Dale Mole.

After 10 months, Mole saw his first plane, thought of his wife, and breathed a sigh of relief. With winter over, he was able to return to the States in November 2012. During his tenure, he had attended lectures on art history, cared for a group requiring everything from dentistry to physical therapy, and trained non-medical staff to provide critical care in the event of an emergency.

Roden’s four-month stay was a kind of sensory deprivation. Back home, life had gone from being a blinding sea of white to glowing Technicolor. “Coming off the ice, seeing a sunset, the colors were just, wow,” he says. “Getting back to sea level was amazing. I felt great.”

Such experiences are more than an endurance test: they help inform future remote care in environments as varied as rural America, third world nations, and even Mars. Advanced handheld diagnostic tools, Parazynski says, are already on the way. “The notion is to develop a device that would have the diagnostic capabilities of a full lab in a major hospital. Not overly prescriptive, just basic physiological parameters, blood chemistries. It will help revolutionize healthcare in remote and in regular health care.”

While the efforts of Mole and other physicians are a valuable learning tool for future explorers, it’s the physician who may benefit the most. “The months of profound darkness, the majestic starry skies, the shimmering auroras, the icy desolation, going to bed at night a few feet from where all the lines of longitude converge …” Mole trails off. “These are the memories I will carry with me to my grave.”

This story originally appeared in 2015.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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