CLOSE
Original image
iStock

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Paramedics

Original image
iStock

Paramedics, who are among the most highly-skilled of Emergency Medical Services (or EMS) professionals, are in many ways like real-life superheroes, tending to people in their time of greatest need. While most of us hope to never see a paramedic on our doorstep, their appearance in times of distress can be critical to patient survival and recovery. Mental_floss spoke with several of these professionals about what it's like to be a medical first responder.

1. THEY ARE NOT JUST “AMBULANCE DRIVERS.”

Paramedics are skilled medical professionals who have undergone many hours of rigorous training—far more than your average emergency medical technician (EMT). “A lot of people call us ambulance drivers,” says Nick, a critical care paramedic in New York. “It aggravates us because driving is such a small part of the job. Emergency medicine is what we’re doing.” Medical tasks paramedics regularly carry out include administering medication, starting IVs, intubating unconscious patients to help them breathe, intraosseous (bone) injections, reading electrocardiograms (EKGs), needle chest decompression (sticking a needle into the ribs to fix a collapsed lung), and differentiating between different types of heart attacks.

2. THEIR JOB IS NOT ALL BLOOD, BRUISES, AND BROKEN BONES.

Contrary to the popular image of emergency medical workers, some paramedics handle a relatively small number of traumatic injury calls. In New York and other big cities, the emergency medical system can be large enough to be split into specific specialties. Consequently, explains Thomas Rivalis, a New York paramedic who runs emergency management consulting firm Sagex LLC, city EMTs are often sent to scenes of trauma, while paramedics respond to medical calls (think heart attacks, strokes, and seizures). “If you are in a car accident, the person pulling you out of the car is most likely an EMT,” he says. “If you see someone clutch their chest and fall over, and you call 9-1-1, that is most likely going to be a paramedic.”

But in smaller suburban and rural systems, where resources are scarcer, it is more common for duties to overlap and paramedics to handle all types of calls.

3. THEY MIGHT ALSO HAVE TO PUT OUT FIRES—LITERALLY.

Emergency medical systems vary greatly by location, resulting in significant differences in the work paramedics carry out. Bruce Goldthwaite, a shift captain and paramedic in Franklin, New Hampshire, works in a dual role system where paramedics not only respond to all types of calls, but where all emergency medical workers work as firefighters as well. Bruce explains that on a typical day, he “could go on an ambulance call, to a building fire, on a technical rescue ... On an odd day you could be on all of those trucks in a single shift.”

There are other common differences. Rural and suburban EMTs, unlike their urban counterparts, are frequently volunteers, drawing a paycheck if they choose to move on and become paramedics. And it’s typical for small-town EMS workers to wait for calls in a station house outfitted with beds and a lounge, unlike New York medics, who spend their time between calls waiting on an assigned corner in an ambulance.

4. THEY FIND WAYS TO FILL THEIR DOWN TIME.

While the job of an EMS worker is all about action, it also involves a fair amount of time sitting in an ambulance (or a station, depending on where you work) waiting for disaster to strike. Every paramedic has their preferred way of filling the time. “HBO Go is a thing,” Thomas says. “You’ve got guys who will binge-watch a whole series of Game of Thrones. Some people read. Then you’ve got the super tech who wants to bring in cardiac textbooks.” Since paramedics are subject to regular recertification, they sometimes use their downtime for studying. Thomas adds, however, that “bringing any type of napping accoutrement (read: pillows, blankets) is frowned upon.”

5. TRAFFIC IS THEIR BIGGEST HAZARD.

While driving may not constitute the most significant part of a paramedic’s job, it is one of the most dangerous. Nick has been in over 10 collisions in the course of his EMS career. “Far and away the driving is the most dangerous aspect,” he says. “When you’re driving with sirens and going through red lights and trying to move aggressively through traffic, it’s inherently dangerous.”

Compounding the issue is the fact that the patient compartment of most ambulances, unlike the cab, is essentially an aluminum box that doesn’t offer a lot of protection. Medics take care to secure their patient in the stretcher but frequently remain untethered themselves while working, putting them at risk of being flung around in the event of a wreck. The American ambulance manufacturing industry is taking steps to adopt safer crew restraint systems similar to those in Europe and Australia, but change is slow in coming.

6. ABOUT THAT LOVELY SOUND ...

Few people would describe the sound of an ambulance siren as “nice.” Urban dwellers, in particular, loathe the shriek that seems to form a constant backdrop to city life. But how do paramedics, who hear sirens far more than anyone else, feel about this tool of their trade?

“People give you nasty looks when you turn on a siren. Like ‘oh, my eardrum,’” Thomas says. “It’s not that much quieter inside the cab.” Particularly pernicious is the rumbling siren known as the Howler, which is a feature on some police cars and ambulances. “The button actually says ‘wear hearing protection when you use this,’” Thomas says. “You think any of us even have hearing protection?” Nick, however, insists that he has gotten so used to sirens that he can sleep through them.

7. STAIRS ARE THEIR NEMESIS.

Paramedics dread calls that involve stairs. Throw in a heavy patient unable to get up and down steps by themselves, and you have a recipe for paramedic back strain. These jobs can be particularly brutal in New York, where buildings are tall and pre-war structures often lack an elevator. Thomas describes arriving at a building to tend to a patient on the 15th floor, only to find that the elevator was out of service. “Just as we were getting ready to carry her down,” he says, “the repair guys finished fixing the elevator. I’ve never been so happy.”

8. THE TRAINING IS VERY TOUGH.

Becoming an entry-level EMT (or EMT-B, for Basic) requires between 120 and 150 hours of schooling, but acquiring the skills to become a paramedic requires many more—typically around 1200 to 1800 additional hours. Like a lot of medical training, it is rigorous and the hours long. Nick refers to his own training as “just grueling ... It’s basically a straight year where you’re not going to see your friends, you’re not going to see your family.” Not everyone makes it through on their first try. And, unfortunately, if you drop out, you have to start all over again.

9. THE PAY IS NOT NECESSARILY GREAT.

For people who spend their time saving lives, EMS workers are not always well-compensated. The median annual wage for paramedics and EMTs in 2015 was $31,980. Within that, there is a broad pay range, with EMTs (volunteer units aside) often making considerably less (around $10 an hour in some places), and the best-paid paramedics making over $60,000.

10. DARK HUMOR IS PRETTY COMMON.

Sometimes a few jokes are necessary to get through a day filled with illness and injury. Paramedics are known to rely on this strategy, and their wisecracks frequently take trip to the dark side. “It’s just terrible, terrible dark humor all the time,” Nick says. “Sometimes people who are not in medicine are aghast. When you face mortality all the time, you have a different perception of death.”

11. THEY CAN BE SUPERSTITIOUS.

Actors avoid speaking the name of Macbeth, instead referring to the famous Shakespeare work as “the Scottish play.” And they would rather have someone tell them to “break a leg” than to wish them good luck. Paramedics, it turns out, have their superstitions too. Thomas says that he avoids uttering the words “slow” or “quiet” (he uses the “S-word” and the “Q-word”) on the job, lest they invoke the wrath of the “EMS gods” and bring about a tough shift. In addition, some paramedics earn a reputation as “black clouds.” “You work with that one person,” he says, “and you know that there’s going to be a cardiac arrest or a five car pileup.”

12. THEY’RE HERE TO HELP.

Paramedics earn their superhero reputation for a reason: Most are drawn to the job out of an earnest desire to help people. Bruce says that he has always enjoyed helping others, but that he was set on his particular path after watching a paramedic attend to his father when he was having a cardiac arrest. “It was pretty impressive,” he says, “and I thought if you can help people in that way, I like it. Sign me up.” For Thomas, one of the biggest rewards is the opportunity to bring “dignity to people who don’t often get to experience it—people who have dependence issues, people who are homeless. You’re interacting with these people in a position of authority, and you can use this to make their day worse than it is, or you can bring a little dignity to their lives.”

13. THEY LIKE IT IF YOU’RE NICE.

Because they deal with people in distress, a paramedic’s job is often thankless. It helps if you’re nice. “We’re human. We make mistakes,” Thomas says. “We have bad days, we have good days. We all come to work to help people and we try our best. But it’s up to the person that we’re helping to meet us half way. We know we’re coming in on the worst day of your life—but the best thing that you can do is just give us your cooperation. You want to get to the hospital. We want to take you to the hospital. But we have to assess you first.”

14. THE ONLY WAY TO KNOW WHETHER YOU’RE A PARAMEDIC IS TO GO ON A FIRST CALL.

Bruce emphasizes that much of what a paramedic sees on a daily basis the general public will never have to encounter in their lives. “It’s a very gratifying job,” he says, “but it’s a tough job. You see a lot of things that you can’t get rid of.” Despite the many hours of training and simulations that go into certification, it’s not possible for an EMS worker to know how they will react in a real situation until they are actually in one. “You can do all the classroom work and all the preparatory imagining of what it’s going to be like when you’re standing in front of a person who’s dying,” Nick says. “Sometimes people just can’t handle it, and you can’t really guess who it’s going to be.” He adds, however, that he took to the job pretty quickly. Fortunately for the public, people who have what it takes to be a paramedic are out there.

All photos via iStock.

Original image
iStock
arrow
job secrets
17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors
Original image
iStock

Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Original image
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation
arrow
job secrets
9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists
Original image
A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios