How physicians relax, play and adventure to the end of the Earth
Join us in this new series as the MSSC takes a peek at the hobbies, adventures and pastimes of its membership. Have an interesting story to tell or know a physician who does? Email Phillip Brownlee at PhillipBrownlee@med-soc.org.
Hospitalist and general practitioner John-Michael Watson, MD, embarked on an epic journey to winter at the South Pole this year. The sun set on March 21 and his station entered absolute darkness on May 12. The sun won’t return until September, and no supply planes will land until October. He’s having the time of his life.
As a kid growing up in rural Kansas, John-Michael Watson spent a lot of time reading travel magazines and compiling lists of far-away places he dreamed of visiting. This year, his goal of visiting Antarctica became a reality.
After a lengthy process, Watson, a general practitioner who was a hospitalist in Wichita for the past two years, arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in February, fresh-faced and ready to serve over the long, isolated winter there.
This month, Watson, now sporting a beard and a new outlook on extreme conditions, spoke about his experience live via satellite to medical students and family medicine faculty at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita and provided an exclusive interview to the MSSC.
Average temperatures at the South Pole in the winter are about -80˚F, with wind chills of -130˚F. “The view of the night sky is incredible, with unmatched views of the Milky Way and often 24/7 views of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).”
His day typically starts at 4:45 a.m. at the gym before breakfast with a crew of about 50 wintering at the South Pole. “We have a very healthy, young crew, so outside of urgent/emergent situations and acute illness, a big part of my job is working with the crew on preventative measures related to sleep, mental health/team dynamics, nutrition and exercise “overall, ensuring the crew remains healthy and is able to maintain a high level of function in this extreme environment,” he said.
Since it’s a small crew, he also helps cover the water and power plant crew on weekends. “All of our habitat/station life-support systems are buried under the ice and require frequent monitoring with rounds to ensure all the systems are operating correctly,” he said.
Although he’s residing at the most isolated spot on Earth, Watson said he’s rarely alone. The small station means the crew there quickly became like family. But perhaps the biggest surprise for Watson is how much he loves the incredible challenge of working in Antarctica. “I didn’t mention very much about this in the presentation, but working in Antarctica will be my full-time job moving forward, and I will remain on staff for UTMB/The National Science Foundation,” he said.
In November, he’ll be “off ice” for several months while preparing for his next Antarctic deployment later in 2023. For adventurous doctors, there are lots of opportunities for international expedition medicine gigs, Watson said. “As physicians, we have this remarkable ability to apply our training to an incredibly diverse set of environments and geography. There really are endless opportunities open to those who are available, up for an adventure, and interested in serving in these types of non-traditional practice settings,” he said. “It’s exactly the type of practice I had always dreamed about when I applied to medical school.”