Polar Race 2005

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Medical Support for the Polar Race 2003

Finding yourself in Resolute Bay, northern Canada and being the only doctor for hundreds of miles you question how you got into this situation. I'm here as the medical support for the toughest race on earth to the North Magnetic Pole. Teams of 2 or 3 people are pulling sledges 350 miles against the clock, braving temperatures down to -45°C, winds to 80kmph and not to forget the ever present danger from polar bears.

My background is in pre-hospital trauma care in the UK, being part of a mobile medical team attending road traffic accidents, plane crashes and other such disasters. I do this under the umbrella of the charity BASICS (www.basics.org.uk). Coming to the Arctic on a trip to the North Pole has to be the most extreme environment in which to practise pre-hospital medicine, and one, which I jumped at.

Six months ago I was asked to join the team of organisers for the Polar Race as the doctor. My brief was to put together medical boxes for all the teams, train them in cold weather injuries, and to care for every medical eventuality during the race!! Each team carries with them a medical box put together by myself in conjunction with UK experts in the field. One side of the box is full of dressings, sutures, local anaesthetics, duoderm, Medlogic skin glue, and minor operating essentials. The otherside of the box has analgesics, antibiotics, antiemetics, hypnotics, antivirals, antacids, proton pump inhibitors and an eye treatment pack (containing topical anaesthetics, pupil dilators, abrasion stains and steroids). Also included are various topical steroid based creams and flamazine.

Each team underwent training in the UK on cold weather injuries and the contents of the medical box plus suturing and emergency life support techniques.

Ian fails to follow his own advice and gets frostnip
Ian fails to follow his own advice and gets frostnip

I also carry a stripped down version of my trauma bag containing advanced airway kit, IV kit, fluids, morphine, diamorphine, midazolam, ketamine and metachlopramide. The logistics of a trauma out in the Arctic are considerable, everything freezes, becomes brittle and batteries last no time at all.

We arrived in Resolute Bay, the traditional staging post of trips into the high Arctic, some 3 weeks ago. Before the race had started I was inundated with gastrointestinal problems (diarrhoea, vomiting and gastritis) all of which easily treated with loperamide, fluids and zoton.

The race started and 2 days latter and I was airlifted to the first checkpoint some 65 miles out from the start. The teams filtered through the first checkpoint over the next 3 days suffering from all manor of conditions, ranging from frost nip/bite, constipation, piles, shin splints, wrist tendonitis and fungal groin rashes. All team members had a rest period before setting off on Leg 2.

Leg 2 is the longest of the race, 120 miles of gruelling ice rubble and the notorious polar bear pass. The racers arrived at the second checkpoint with tails of terrible weather and polar bears!! All racers by now were obviously much fitter and well conditioned and remarkably injury free.

However, one racer after a 20 hour push over 40 miles in temperatures down to -48°C came into the checkpoint with terribly painful red watering eyes and cloudy vision. Picture the scene in a cramped tent, I instilled local anaesthetic into both eyes, added fluroscene stain (which shows up damaged corneal cells under a blue light) climbed under a jacket to make it dark (as it's 24 hours of day light) and with my home made blue light found large corneal abrasions in both eyes. (Conditions under the jacket were made even more cramped by all his team mates joining me with a video camera!!!!!!). We fashioned some eye patches by filling a pair of ski goggles with tissue paper. He was treated with antibiotics, painkillers and diazepam for 48 hours and made a full recovery.

Dr Ian's frozen cornea treatment
Dr Ian's frozen cornea treatment

Leg 3 is now under way and I will add to this article on my return from the ice in a few days.

I would be pleased to answer questions on any aspects of extreme medicine, the construction/contents of the medical boxes or any other related race medical problems by emailing me at [email protected]

Ian Davis, Polar Race 2003
26 April 2022

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