Let me start by saying that from the moment this project came together I was committed to introducing you guys to amazing, cool, talented people every chance I got. „Why is this so important to you?” you might wonder. Truth be told, no one really gave me this assignment, but I took it upon myself simply because I for one love to read stories about people who are doing remarkable and phenomenal things. Brings out the best version of me and gives me joy, hope and motivation. Social Media today chooses to ignore the people who are actually insightful; and somehow I made it my mission to try and put the spotlight on them for a minute.
What makes me chuckle is that you guys are always asking me „Ok, but…where do you find all these people to interview?”. To that I say it takes a lot of research, time, energy and intuition. Now allow me to ask you a quick question: What do a physician assistant working in the South Pole and writer have in common? Really, no one? Ok, I’ll tell you: internet connection and a TikTok account. As much as we all love to hate this app, I’m telling you, sometimes TikTok uses their power in the name of good. And I’m here for it.
This is how I came across Joe’s account and I found out about his incredible journey in the South Pole as a physician assistant. I kept seeing his videos on my fyp and the more I saw, the more I thought to myself „This is beyond cool. How am I just finding out about his story?”. Now I was hooked and I kept on scrolling through all the videos to learn about his experience in the South Pole and what it is like to actually work there as part of the medical staff.
When they tell you that people spend hours on this app and they can’t seem to realize how fast time flies by, you better believe it’s true. Take it from me. Especially if you have captivating content and you’re invested in the story much like I was when I discovered Joe’s TikTok account.
And here’s why: his content is extremely detailed, truthful, interactive and unique compared to other content creators. To be fair, not many people would have the courage and determination to apply for a job in the South Pole and that’s what made me stick around and follow the entire journey.
Call me Curious George if you must, but after seeing Joe’s content I had no doubt in my mind that his story/experience would inspire other people as well and I knew something had to be done about that. So I listened to my instinct and sent him an interview proposal and now here we are.
In this interview we cover a lot of topics from when/how this adventure began, to all the tasks a physician assistant has to do on a daily basis or what safety procedures they have in place in the South Pole, but so much more.
Have a read.
What made you accept this incredible challenge to work as a physician assistant in the South Pole?
I’ve always had a fascination with Antarctica, ever since I was a little kid. I would look at the map and try to find some place that was untouched by humans, somewhere that was left to be discovered… and I always came back to Antarctica.
Then I grew up and got some medical training to become a physician assistant in the USA, and one of my professors had been a doctor at the South Pole station in the 1980s. I was captivated by his stories, and as soon as I felt I was qualified, I started applying. That was about 4 years ago, and last year I finally got the job.
What are the most dangerous and unpredictable things that can happen and how do you prepare for them?
Anywhere where people live, emergencies can happen. However, we try to reduce the medical risks as much as possible. Everyone on station has to pass a rigorous physical before coming down here, including getting scanned for gallstones (gallstones have caused lots of problems in the past, often required a med-evac).
With the amount of heavy equipment around (power plant, snow vehicles, science experiments) there’s also lots of opportunity for accidents. Also, the environment is probably the harshest one on earth’s surface. Hypothermia is of course a constant concern, with the winter temps getting as low as -102F or -74C.
As part of the medical staff (along with the station doctor) we train often for accidents and emergencies, and have a lot of capability at our disposal in the clinic including lab tests, x-rays, EKGs, dental work, etc. As long as it doesn’t require surgery, we can probably handle it here.
Can you back away from the contract you signed if you decide you no longer want to work there? How can it be done?
If you sign a winter contract and then decide you want to quit during winter (after the station closes in February), then you’ll be released from your job and make minimum wage for the rest of your time here. However, since there’s no flights or transport in or out of the station from February to October (unless a medical evacuation), there’s no way for you to leave. So, I’ve never actually heard of anyone doing this. You can quit anytime, but you’re not going anywhere.
How cold was „too cold” for you before working in the South Pole? And has your tolerance to cold weather gone up since working there?
Good question! My tolerance for cold weather has definitely increased. I’m from sunny Florida, USA, where the temperature never ever gets below 25F / -4C. „Too cold” for me before coming to South Pole was probably -15F / -26C (I did work in South Dakota, USA a lot) but now I feel like I can handle any temperature with the proper gear.
Do you guys have a back-up plan in case you run out of medicine supplies? How long would it take to receive a new batch of medicine?
There’s not really a back-up plan, but that’s okay because we have a large supply of medications in the pharmacy and equipment in storage. Also, we hold on to older/expired medications even when we get replacements, just in case we need them later. So we’re very prepared for pretty much any medication need.
If there was an urgent need for a medication we did not have (like chemotherapy for cancer, for instance) it is possible to airdrop supplies to the South Pole by airplane. This was done about 20 years ago for the station doctor that found she had breast cancer while here.
What do you need to be on the lookout for as a physician assistant? What are your responsibilities?
The doctor and I share responsibilities in the clinic. We have to be a little of everything: lab tech, radiology tech, nurse, pharmacists, inventory managers… and of course, medical providers. However, since everyone on station is pretty healthy, we also get to branch out into general health and welfare of the crew, mental health checks, physical fitness education, and nutritional advice.
You already spent some time in the South Pole. What are the most basic/common things you underappreciated before working there?
I knew I would miss the sun during our polar winter, where we don’t see it for 6 months. However, what I didn’t anticipate is that I really, really miss rain. Light rain, heavy rain, thunderstorms… I have dreams about rain. I also really miss fresh fruits; with no supplies coming in from February to October, we don’t have any apples, oranges, bananas, etc for months! We do get a limited supply of vegetables from the greenhouse, but these are generally leafy greens like spinach, bok choi, and herbs. So they really help, but they’re not everything.
On your Social Media platform you talked about conspiracy theories and actually debunked a few of them. Why do you think people are so eager and willing to believe conspiracy theories?
Really good question, and one that I’ve thought a lot about. I think the type of people that are true believers in the flat earth, or hollow earth, or whatever, they come from 2 different places. The first type is the ones that believe that society/government/etc lies to them, these lies have hurt them in some way. Then they find a group of people that believe the same things and reinforce each other.
The second type is the ones that never really understood science in school because it was never explained to them in a way they could understand, and they were ridiculed for it, or otherwise made to feel stupid. Then someone comes along with a dumbed-down common sense theory that they can grasp („see the earth looks flat, right? Trust your eyes!”) and suddenly they get to take pride in their „common sense” and see it as their opportunity to ridicule the „smart” people that formerly looked down on them.
In both cases, these people find a strong sense of belonging and inclusion in these groups that they likely have never felt before. There is a bond there, one that they get emotionally attached to, and is difficult to break with only facts and arguments. You may think you’re just trying to guide a flat earther to the truth, but to them it may feel like you’re trying to tear them away from one of the few places they ever belonged. That’s why so many that comment on my page are so passionate, often calling people names and otherwise being very un-chill.
Anyway, that’s just my theory.
What is the first thing you have in mind to do when you get back home? Why?
First thing? Go for a run outside! I love running but I hate the treadmill. Obviously, with the weather being so cold outside and boots being cumbersome, it’s a bit difficult to run outside (I haven’t attempted it). I can’t wait to get home to Sarasota, FL, USA and go for a run on my home street and just feel the sun on my face.
Would you accept another contract in the South/North Pole if the occasion arises?
Absolutely! I’ve loved my time here and it’s been such a unique opportunity. Plus, with all my expenses paid for during my stay (food, lodging, etc) I saved a lot of money. The winter darkness is a little difficult toward the end, but I think it’s worth it. And if not at the South Pole station, maybe a station near the coast?