Antarctic dental house call

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Antarctica_extra-pic---300According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, last summer was the hottest on record with January experiencing a series of heatwaves that sent the temperature to record highs. While most of Australia and New Zealand sweltered, Dr Peter Platts, practice principal at St Albans Dental Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, was spending time in one of the coldest places on earth—Antarctica.

Along with practice manager and dental nurse Jo Berry, he made the journey to McMurdo Station on the tip of Ross Island and then continued on to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. This was no pleasure trip. They were there to check the dental health and treat the scientists and staff of these remote research stations. St Albans Dental Centre became involved with the Antarctic research stations due to the fact that, 12 years ago, they were one of the first practices to embrace digital radiography. The National Science Foundation in Denver, Colorado, oversees the US presence in Antarctica through the Antarctic Search Contract (ASC). Each member of the American team undergoes a complete medical check and must pass a physical qualification (PQ) prior to spending time on the ice.

With New Zealand as the staging point between the USA and the Antarctic, St Albans Dental Centre dealt with dental matters that arose. “Historically, dental X-rays were posted back and forth between Antarctica, New Zealand and Denver which was very inefficient,” says Dr Platts. “By embracing digital radiography early on, we were able to email X-rays instantaneously. This helped cement our relationship with the Americans.” In the past, the ASC annually appointed a full-time dentist to spend each summer in Antarctica. The staff are thoroughly checked before leaving the USA or New Zealand and they are generally dentally fit on arrival.

The dentist was there for emergencies and to perform the odd filling or fix the occasional cracked tooth. Last year the entire US Antarctic program was taken over by Lockheed Martin from Raytheon and a decision was made not to appoint a full-time dentist. “The rumour was that the previous dentist had spent a lot of time driving trucks and doing other odd jobs because there wasn’t enough work for him,” says Dr Platts. St Albans Dental Centre, a Dental Corporation practice, was approached in September last year and asked if they would be interested in going down to the ice periodically over the summer season to do the necessary PQ examinations and attend to any emergencies. “We were very interested,” says Dr Platts, “so we put in a tender which was initially rejected. However, a week before Christmas, we were told they wanted us down there—provided we could fly down on January 9 this year. All of a sudden we were going to Antarctica during a period when we were very busy.

It was a hectic process getting the necessary PQs and paperwork sorted out, and rescheduling patients before departure.” Part of the tender included the addition of a dental nurse, so Jo Berry, who has worked for the practice for the past 10 years, was happy to take part. “I wondered what I had got myself into when I first boarded,” says Berry, referring to the mode of transport—a Hercules plane. “It’s an eight-hour flight and the interior of the plane is very basic. You sit among the cargo so the busier the flight, the less leg room. You also need to carry all your own gear so it’s a bit of a tight squeeze.” Dr Platts and Berry saw about 80 patients during their time on the ice. “Most of the staff had well-maintained teeth so the dentistry was fairly routine,” says Dr Platts. “We carried out a lot of cleans, a few fillings and one extraction of a wisdom tooth. We also brought along a portable Digora digital radiograph that we had hired from Radiographic Supplies in Christchurch.

We used this to send updated X-rays back to the States.” After dealing with the staff at McMurdo Station, the team was flown to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. This was a real bonus as it’s an extremely difficult place to access. A group of approximately 40 scientists and support staff were planning to ‘winter over’ and so it was vital that their teeth were in good shape. The work was completed in two days, although they soon discovered it was a difficult place to leave. “Each day there were at least a couple of flights scheduled out of the South Pole but for various reasons, they were cancelled,” Dr Platts recalls. “We ended up being there for a week.”

With time to kill, they donned cross-country skis and explored the surrounding area. In his plentiful spare time, Dr Platts read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a recount of Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition. “I learned that on January 18, 1912, Scott arrived at the pole. I figured out where he would have come from and re-enacted his arrival exactly 102 years to the day,” he says. They also visited the tunnels 20 metres under the NSF building where pipes run heated water down into the glacier to melt ice and recover the fresh water for the facility. The temperature within these tunnels was a chilly -60 degrees Celcius—cold enough to freeze everything, including their camera.

While both Dr Platts and Berry are keen to return to Antarctica, other staff at St Albans Dental Centre would like to share the experience. However, the logistics of flying people down there in the extreme climate is so difficult, there’s no guarantee that any timetable will be adhered to. Jo Berry can’t believe she’s now a member of an elite group—those who have visited the South Pole. “It was a fascinating experience and one which I would like other members of our staff to experience. The landscape is incredible but it was the people we met that was the best part of the job. I would return in a heartbeat.” 

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