Arctic Norway: Polar Medicine

Two days before my arrival in Norway, I was busy packing away my ice climbing gear after three perfect days in the Scottish Highlands. The polar medicine course whatsapp group was buzzing away and I was vaguely paying attention to the multiple questions regarding kit and logistics. The sunset over the Torridon mountains seemed far too worthy of my attention and I gathered I could catch up on the goings on in front of the fire in a few hours time. At some point the topic of conversation had moved on to arrival times and subsequent transfers to Suolovuopmi. I had the sudden realisation that I was arriving on Monday afternoon, a day after everyone else. Frantically looking through my emails, I tried to decipher how exactly I had made this mistake.

purple tints fill the sky during sunset over Alta. The water is surrounded by beautiful, snowy arctic landscape
Sunset over Alta Fjord

Alas, after spending the next few hours trawling skyscanner without much success, I came to terms with the fact I would be missing the first 24 hours of the polar medicine course. The start I had been eagerly anticipating for the last 6 months.  I resumed my place in front of the fire at the idyllic Scottish retreat and enjoyed my last night before flying back to London.

thick snow covers the roof of two red lodges in arctic Norway
Ariel view of Suolovuopmi Lodge
snow covers the small red huts on the hillside of an arctic landscape
Huts at Suolovuopmi Lodge

Having finally arrived at Suolovuopmi, I was met in the lodge by the smell of delicious home baked pastries and I met some of the team.

Polar Medicine Faculty

The faculty consisted of four members:

Zac Poulton, who had met me at the airport after his flight had been delayed a day (Perhaps I should go with that story too). Zac has been a mountain guide in some of the world’s most remote locations and has recently worked with ALE in Antarctica.

Matt Edwards, the course leader, has been the doctor on many expeditions. Most notably, he has spent 18 months working for BASMU, the British Antarctic Survey medical unit as the doctor.

I was privileged to meet Chris Imray, another faculty member. A vascular and renal transplant surgeon and the pioneer of the UK’s frostbite advice service .  I was fortunate enough to spend a few meal times picking his brain on the subject.

Ben Cooper has worked as an A&E charge nurse for over 12 years and is one of the Edale mountain rescue team. He has spent many seasons working in Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica. He has a wealth of knowledge and kept the group in check, making sure we were adequately prepared for the cold.

A person making their way along a snowy secluded path
Cross country skiing route

Delegates

The group of delegates consisted of 14 medical professionals from all walks of life. There were Australian paramedics, Brazilian and British remote GP’s and nephrologists from Scandinavia to name but a few. We listened to eachothers awesome tales and we were all really keen to get stuck into the course.

A large tent in the snow with ski poles and a sledge on the ground
These tents are usually used during the winter when reindeer herding

Polar Travel

The main elements of the polar medicine course revolved around cold injuries such as frostbite, cold water immersion and hypothermia. Zac explained the risks of such injuries and practical elements of how to avoid these were integrated into almost every aspect of the course. When skidoo’ing and dogsledding factoring in wind chill to the already harsh -35 degree temperatures was imperative to avoiding frostbitten extremities. Mitts became essential parts of our equipment and even a few minutes without gloves proved dangerous.

A girl in a balaclava sat ontop of a skidoo in northern norway amongst the snow
Skidoo’ing

Cold Water Immersion

The majority experienced the ‘screaming bathies’ first hand after our cold water immersion experience. That was after only one minute submerged in the frozen waters. Later over dinner, the story of medical miracle of Anna Bågenholm mesmerised us. She survived over 80 minutes submerged in a flowing river during the Norwegian winter season. ‘You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead’ had never been more real.

A member of the polar medicine faculty in submerged in a pool of water where 15cm ice has been removed demonstrating skills
Faculty member, Matt Edwards demonstrating the response to cold water immersion

Polar Medicine Expedition

We tested our cross-country skiing skills during the first night of our mini-expedition. Our 6km ski was  challenging; narrow uphill slopes followed by steep, uneven downhill slopes. Finally at our camping spot, we were elated to be met by heated tents. Although challenging the ski was made all the more pleasant by the accompaniment of the Aurora Borealis, some of the most active lights they have ever had on a polar medicine course we were told.

Our campsite on expedition

The polar medicine faculty swung into action when one of the delegates who had struggled with heat control suffered from hypothermia towards the end of the ski. Later that week, she described her experience during the end of course reflection. The entire group felt every part of her experiences and it was a huge learning point for us all. Even as medical professionals we are vulnerable in unfamiliar environments.

Campsite in the arctic desert from above

Snow Shelters

A highlight of my trip had to be building and subsequently staying in my snow shelter. After an afternoon slaving away with shovels we finally completed our snow hole and we could move in. It became very cosy with the candles and reindeer throws and before we knew it we were even warm. However, Matt disrupted our peace coaxing us out to see ‘the most incredible northern lights he had seen’ in his ten years of visiting Norway. I’m glad I was amenable because on exiting the snow hole the entire sky had lit up with the scintillating green, red and white lights.

It was breath taking.

Finnmark Sløpet

On our final night at the polar medicine course we enjoyed the local festivities surrounding the Finnmark Sløpet. The entire town had come out to celebrate. There were Sami stalls selling arctic fox fur hats and other handcrafted goods. Celebrations kicked off on the Friday night with the main race, each team of 12 dogs completes 1200km over 6 days. Each sled driven by a musher who has to feed and care for the dogs meticulously. We sat by the fire as each team passed and saw the start of the junior race the next day. It was a real privilege to involved in the cultural event that has united the region.

 

Check out the video of our time in Norway.

World Extreme Medicine offers a variety of courses including their Polar medicine courses in Norway and New Zealand.

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Two days before my arrival in Norway, I was busy packing away my ice climbing gear after three perfect days in the Scottish Highlands....
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