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 The ad was outdated and she was certain someone had filled the position.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.