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James McClintock, Ph.D.
Mission Co-Investigator

Doc Betty Carlisle

Journal By J McClintock

Posted On 4/19/2004 6:24:20 PM

This season at Palmer Station I have had the good fortune to get to know and work with Betty Carlisle, MD. She is indeed a veteran of the US Antarctic program, having now served as a medical doctor at all three major US research facilities on the continent (South Pole, McMurdo Station, Palmer Station). Yesterday, I sat down and chatted with Betty in her medical office here at Palmer Station. Besides her being a superb medical doctor (this much is obvious), simply said Betty has had, and continues to have, an extraordinary life. Let me tell you a little about what I learned.

Betty first got the “Antarctic Bug” when a friend of hers was drafted many years ago in to the Navy and assigned duty at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. It was enough to kindle her curiosity about the frozen continent and it didn’t take her long to look into going down herself. She learned first off that to get to Antarctica she would have to join the Navy. “I can do that!” she thought. But then followed the “kicker”. She learned you had to be a male to go. There was not much she could do about that. Antarctic dreams were filed away for the time being.

Fast forward many years and Betty found herself ready for a sabbatical after practicing Emergency Medicine for several years at a hospital in her hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. A keen sailor she purchased a 44 foot sailboat and spent her sabbatical at sea. When she returned to her office at the hospital she found a stack of medical magazines on her desk. Glancing through them to catch up on the latest in medical treatments she came across an ad seeking a medical doctor for service in Antarctica. The ad was outdated and she was certain someone had filled the position. But Betty’s phone call revealed that the position was still available and before she knew it she found herself winging her way to South Pole Station. Her first thought getting off the plane in early January 1991 was “Oh my God… I am on a frozen ocean!”

Betty spent a wonderful winter at the pole, enjoying the intense sense of family and the camaraderie than comes with sharing life in such isolation. Her return to her position in Washington coincided with the onset of the new HMO model for medicine, a model she found frustrating, infringing on her ability to practice medicine the best way she saw fit. That summer she reapplied to the US Antarctic program and landed a job as the MD at Palmer Station. Here she was stunned with the ethereal beauty of sailing through the Neumayer Strait and the picturesque setting of the station. Betty very much enjoyed her season working with the scientists and staff at Palmer Station. When it came time to leave she explored South America and then spent a year on her sailboat in the South Pacific. But she had been bitten by the Antarctic bug and returned once again for a winter at the South Pole.

She called this her “winter from heaven”, making close friends and bonding with her south pole family. After a one month stint as MD on the US Antarctic ship RV Palmer she traveled through New Zealand and returned to the US to take a new position in Emergency Medicine at a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. Her three month Alaskan contract soon turned into two and a half years. But once her extended contract ran its course she decided to pack her bags once again and drive south, down the Alaskan Highway. I know… you are reading this and wondering… what next?

Well next Betty took a position as an MD at the remote Johnson Atoll where she spent five months working before heading south again to spend her first summer season at McMurdo Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. Unlike Palmer and South Pole this station is the largest station on the continent of Antarctica, and she worked with a team of doctors and nurses. Here at McMurdo adventure struck when she found herself coordinating the medivac of a seriously injured Norwegian sailor from the other side of the continent. The medivac involved a complex interplay between the Americans, Norwegians, British, Germans and New Zealanders. Betty managed to pull it off, with the injured sailor being flown in a small twin otter plane by the Germans to a British Station, and then flown to the South Pole where Betty, in cooperation with the Air National Guard, had arranged for an American Hercules C-130 to airlift the patient to McMurdo and then on to New Zealand. The sailor survived and returned to Norway to recover fully. After spending yet another summer season at McMurdo Station, Betty returned home to catch her breath.

No sooner had she gotten back to her home in Washington than the phone rang and she was asked by the head physician of the US program at the South Pole to fly an emergency mission to replace a doctor at the South Pole Station with pancreatitis. Without hesitation Betty was soon off on a rescue mission. It was much too early in the winter season to fly to the Pole, but under the circumstances risks had to be taken. And so Betty found herself strapped into the seat of a Twin Otter stuffed with extra fuel to ensure they could make the long flight south. “We were a flying bomb!” remarked Betty. The plane landed at the South Pole in -92 degree temperatures. After a brief rest the Twin Otter plane departed with the sick doctor. Betty was left behind to complete the winter season at the pole, her third season at the bottom of the world.

Betty returned to McMurdo for a third summer season where she coordinated medical resources in the successful rescue of two injured pilots that crashed in their helicopter in the dry valleys. And now, here she is, sitting in front of me at Palmer Station, once again spending the winter amongst friends and colleagues. Some she has crossed paths with at McMurdo Station and the South Pole.

Betty’s delighted to be back here, preferring the smaller more intimate feeling of Palmer Station to the city-like McMurdo Station. She’s ready for just about anything. Extensive training in Emergency Medicine does that to someone, and of course she knows her way around medical lab equipment that most doctors depend on technicians to operate. She can do basic surgery in a pinch, and then there is that little suitcase that harbors her dental equipment. She laughs when I ask her how much training she has had in dentistry (there is not dentist within 1000 kilometers). “A day and half of training” she chuckles. I think I will brush well tonight! You know, I think to myself, Betty is a true legend in Antarctic medicine. We that visit and work here year after year owe her for the dedication and commitment she has made to the US Antarctic Program. What a fascinating life. What a life of giving for others. I am truly looking forward to sharing more time with Doc Betty Carlisle before my ship comes in.


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Re: Doc Betty CarlisleEvelyn Kelley4/20/2004 10:22:20 PM

HI - I just read your journal entry and enjoyed learning about the fascination that Dr. Carlisle holds for the South Pole Station. I am curious to know if her work experience there helped her with landing a job in Alaska? Did she travel further into north Alaska and get an opportunity to compare the beauty of the ice there with what she has seen in Antartica? The animals in Alaska share some similarities with Antarctica, the seals for example. Are you interested in comparing the lifestyles of animals that live in both polar regions? I enjoyed your journal entry. Evelyn, First Grade teacher that loves science

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/20/2004 10:22:22 PM

Evelyn, Thanks for writing and I am pleased that you enjoyed my journal entry about Doc Betty Carlisle. I am sure that Betty's work experience as a doctor in Antarctica helped pave the way for her position as an emergency doctor in Anchorage, Alaska. She told me that she did not get a chance to visit the northern Arctic while in Alaska, but she did enjoy traveling in the general area of Anchorage including the Kenai Peninsula. There are definately some animals that you find in Alaska that occur here in Antarctica. Whales and seals come to mind, although you may find a somewhat different suite of species in each polar region. Our research program is focused on the chemical ecology of marine invertebrates and macroalgae. We are indeed interested in comparing aspects of the chemical ecology of these organisms in both Arctic and Antarctic marine environments. But to date, our work has focused on the southern polar regions! Glad to know that you love science! You will accomplish much in your teaching career if you share this passion for science with your first graders. Cheers, Jim

Re: Doc Betty CarlisleEvelyn Kelley4/21/2004 8:23:04 PM

HI Jim, It is a small world. I am going to present my visit to Alaska two years ago with JASON with Jerri Lynn in May. I have linked the conference on my school web site. I am also going to link your study now in Antartica and see if we can get some Inglenook students writing and asking questions. Take a look at what is happening in May. When will your group be back in Birmingham? I will share your site with the teachers at school at our next faculty meeting. Would you be available to come visit us next Fall? I did get to hear you present at a JASON training in the last few years so I am familiar somewhat with your research. I have known JerriLynn for several years and worked with her in the Geographic Alliance and JASON. Will be in touch again, Evelyn Kelley

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/21/2004 8:23:04 PM

Hi Evelyn, Great to hear from you while I am down here at Palmer Station. It is indeed a small world. I continue to be amazed how the world continues to shrink. This year we have telecommunications capability here that essentially is like picking up the phone and calling at home, and just as cheap! I am delighted you will present your Alaska adventures as a component of the conference that Jerri Lynn is hosting this May. I return across the Drake Passage during the latte part of May, and will be home by the end of the month. Thanks for the web site. I will check it out. And thank you for sharing our Antarctic web site with your fellow faculty and students. We would love to hear from them! Cheers, Jim PS I would be very happy to visit your class in the fall to make a presentation on antarctic marine biology, or if I am not available, to ask one of my fellow antarctic colleagues to do so!

Re: Doc Betty CarlisleLyndsey4/23/2004 1:46:47 PM

Dr. McClintock, Doc Betty sounds interesting! If you had a big medical emergency and needed to get to a big hospital, how and where would you go?

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/23/2004 1:46:47 PM

Hi Lyndsey! Yes, Doc Betty is very interesting. A remarkable woman! Now to your question. If there was a big medical emergency there is a very carefully considered plan ready to be put into action. First, Doc Betty would make a decision as to whether the patient needed to be air lifted to a hospital. If they did, then it is possible for a small plane called a Twin Otter to be sent from South America to land on the glacier behind our station. This would only be done in a very serious emergency, because there really is not a good runway for the plane. Otherwise, if the patient could be stabilized, they would be transported by ship to Chile. This would proably involve the nearest ship in the region. If it was summer, it could be a tourist cruise ship, but more likely it would be one of the research vessels that service the many antarctic stations here on the Peninsula. Argentina, Chile and Great Britaiin often maintain ships in this region, so they are likely participants in a medical evacuation. There is not much of a hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile, so it is likely the patient would be flown to Santiago, Chile or back to the United States for more intensive care. Great question Lyndsey! Mostly we just try and do everything we can to avoid any serious medical emergencies! Cheers from Antarctica! Take care, Jim

Re: Doc Betty CarlisleYousef4/23/2004 3:01:20 PM

Dr. McClintock, Has anyone in your group needed medical attention from Doc Betty so far? We hope you stay healthy even if she is a great doctor!

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/23/2004 3:01:20 PM

Yousef, Yes, several of our group members have needed the assistance of a medical doctor since arriving here at Palmer Station. However, these have been for relatively minor problems. Colds, respiratory infections and sinus problems seem to be high on the list. Sometimes when one works in an isolated environment like this, the germs are passed easily. Sort of like being on a jet plane where everyone is breathing the same air. So far I have been lucky and have not had a cold or anything. It is great to know that if the need arises, Doc Betty is there to help. Cheers from Antarctica! And you stay healthy too! Jim

Re: Doc Betty CarlisleChase4/26/2004 11:34:41 AM

Dr. McClintock, Have any scientists in recent years been seriously injured or lost their lives while doing scientific research? Stay safe!

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/26/2004 11:34:41 AM

Chase, Fortunately there have not been any serious accidents here at Palmer Station in Antarctica that I am aware of anyway. However, there have been cases of scientists or support staff getting injured while working in Antarctica. This is serious because they have to be evacuated as quickly and safely as possible to a hospital. Fortunately the doctors and emergency medical people here in Antarctica know the best way to make this happen, and they have an excellent track record for getting injured people home quickly to they can be treated and recover fully. Cheers from Palmer Station! Jim

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