Doctor stories
October 19, 2022
Finding the balance together

Dr Gareth Andrews and Dr Richard Stephenson are about to do the longest-ever unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole by an Australian and New Zealander. The trek is 2023 kilometres, and they will be collecting climate data along the way. 

Dr Sam Hazledine caught up with them on his Better Together podcast to discuss their journey for the future of our planet and perhaps the profession, as Gareth and Richard set an example for how following your passions can help combat burnout. 

“I have to ask, what on earth are you thinking?” begins Sam. 
“Well, you can’t be sensible all the time,” Richard replies.

You can listen to the full podcast here, please be aware, in some places, the sound recording is not the best quality (It almost sounds like the boys are already on their way to the South Pole), but we wanted to share it because we think these guys just have such an important story to tell and this was our last chance to catch up with them before they embark on their journey.

Following your passions 

Sam understands exactly where Richard is coming from, in fact, at the time of the interview he is nursing a fractured calcaneus from “not being sensible.” Sam used to be the number one free skier in New Zealand, so when the young athletes were preparing for the Big Air in Wanaka he thought he would give it a nudge (this jump was only open to pro-skiers, but Sam wheedled his way in).  Anticipation was high, but when he underestimated the speed needed to tackle the jump, he came out with a fractured calcaneus. Stupid (or crazy). Some might say, but to Sam, this is about doing what he loves and he is not going to let his less-youthful bones stop him from doing what he enjoys.

Likewise, Gareth and Richard believe in following their passions “we always try and have these big goals or these big projects that we're working on. This is the big one, you know, this is the one that we've been building towards, and it's going to be a historic achievement,” explained Richard.

Getting to know the boys

Richard is an emergency physician from Dunedin in New Zealand. He moved over from the UK 10 years ago because he fell in love with the mountains. He loves the outdoors, skiing, climbing, and biking, and New Zealand was the perfect country for these things. 

“Over the last 15 years, it's been a case of trying to get that right balance between my medical career (which I'm passionate about), but also having other things to my life and maintaining those passions of being up in the mountains and out in the wilderness.” 

Gareth is an Anaesthetist in Sydney. Throughout his whole medical career, he’s tried to use medicine to pursue the things that he really enjoys.

“That's getting outside and exploring the world around us. Expedition medicine is a great way of doing that. So that was really my way into this world.”  

Since Gareth was a child, he has always been drawn to the polar regions. 

“They're so wild and beautiful and untamed. And they've held this real mystery for me, and they and they keep drawing us back.”

The Journey 

“The idea between me and Rich, was conceived about 10 years ago, on our first expedition to the North Pole. And then over the last three years, we've been planning it meticulously – and it's taken us three years to get to this point,” explained Gareth.

The boys’ journey will start on the edge of the Weddell Sea (on the shores of Berkner Island). From there, they’ll ski across Berkner Island and then up to the Rodney Phil Schneider ice shelf, to the base of the Pensacola mountains. Then they’ll find a route up through one of the big glaziers to the Polar Plateau. 

“Once we're on the Polar Plateau, we will have gone from sea level to around 3000 metres. And it's when the temperatures really plummet, you know, they go from an average of minus 10, to minus 20, to minus 30, minus 40, with winds and big storms. Our sleds will be about 160 kilos, so we'll have everything we need to survive for the entire journey right from the start,” explains Gareth. 

The sleds will be laden with all the food, fuel, and everything the boys will need to complete the journey safely. 

“We'll have no outside help while we're on the crossing. And once we get to the South Pole, we'll turn towards the Transantarctic Mountains and the other side of Antarctica,” tells Richard. 

The dangers 

“There's no doubt that we're going to be going into a really, really hostile environment. The temperatures that you're constantly exposed to mean that it's a difficult environment to survive in, it’s depleting all the time, you're constantly struggling to stay warm, there's a constant risk of frostbite, or of cold freezing injuries, you know, a few moments inattention in temperatures, like minus 40, or with a bit of wind could cause you significant problems,” explains Richard. 

He says it all comes down to survival. 

“It's about staying fit, strong, and healthy, in such an extreme, challenging environment whilst covering all of that distance. So the risk really is one of failure, I suppose. And just taking too much of a hammering that our bodies just can't stand up to it, and we can't make it across."

"Then there is always the risk of equipment failure, we've got one tent with us. That tent is our lifestyle that keeps us alive in this hostile environment. If it rips or blows away, then it's game over. And I suppose we are lucky to live in a modern era of relatively good communications and satellite phones, and we've got a pretty robust rescue plan. So if worst comes to worst we will hopefully be at most a few days from being rescued. But there's certainly a time on this expedition when we'll be some of the most remote human beings on the planet.

However, the boys do have a massive advantage in the fact that they are both experienced doctors. “The dangers of falling in crevasses are there, but what we're more likely to get is things like skin infections, chest infections, muscular-skeletal injuries that will end the expedition rather than something major happening. As doctors, we'll be able to preempt, diagnose, and treat things like infected blisters,” explains Gareth. 

Like working in a busy emergency room or hospital, when you are in the wild the importance of teamwork is integral. 

“Gareth mentioned we've been preparing for this for 10 years, one of the key things that have happened over that time is that we've been on different expeditions together, we skated the magnetic north pole, we crossed Iceland Garrison across Greenland, we've been up in the Norwegian Arctic islands and survived, we've been in these tough circumstances together and we've made difficult decisions together. And all of that has shown us ,that as a team, we're kind of ready because we've tested ourselves in this sort of environment," says Richard.

Finding the balance

Gareth explains that having a balance between medicine and his outdoor adventures helps massively,  “both Rich and I have full-time stressful clinical loads being in Anaesthetics and Emergency Medicine, and it can become all-consuming. So we find a release through our adventures, and especially this big project when we set our attention to the expedition rather than our work, it's a welcome distraction.”

“It's us following what we're most passionate about, and I think it's really important for us to have that, and there are so many skills that are transferable across from our clinical work into our expedition work, and the synergy between them is really nice.” 

Richard agrees, "It's so important that all doctors are passionate about medicine. You don't get through medical school and get as far as being a specialist without that passion, commitment, and that interest in it. I know, as an Emergency Physician, I'm in a speciality that is at high risk of burnout in profession that's at higher risk of burnout. It's about recognising that and going “what else is in my life can I be passionate about, that stimulates me, that can be really different, to be really healthy, physically and psychologically?” It’s about making sure that you proactively go out there and go – even as a doctor – I'm still going to have this other part of my life... I can do cool things and I can be passionate about it separate from medicine. And that's a tricky balance practically to achieve, but if you get it right, I think it can be a really healthy thing.” 

Sam asks the guys to offer some advice for other doctors who may be listening, about how to find this balance.

"It’s often difficult to make that first step into giving yourself time to do your other activities. When you make that first step, and you talk to your colleagues about it, and maybe you need to restructure shifts, or restructure how you're working. I have always been blown away by the support of the people around me and it's always been a bit of a worry that there's often this underlying theme in medicine, that it should be your only interest, and that's not quite true. 

Gareth explains that in his case people have been remarkably supportive as soon as he’s suggested these projects. “I think that's the first thing is just taking that first step and then just breaking it down and looking at it, making  a plan as to how you can bring those other interests into, into your, into your life alongside medicine, and then just surrounding yourself with like-minded and positive people.” 

Richard says,  “we can be that change, we can be the new generation of senior doctors who support our junior doctors to do that. Gareth and I have been doing this sort of stuff since we were junior doctors, but we're now both consultants, I'm head of the department,  we're that new generation that when one of my registrars comes to me, and says, “I want to take six months off to go climbing in Himalayas,” I'm like, “good on you, mate. You go for it. We'll get you back into training and support you when you come back.”

"You serve your patients in your specialty better, by not burning out at the age of 50 because you've flown too close to the sun. And actually, it turns out you're not immortal after all, despite what you felt the expectations were. And  we can have longer and healthier careers which are ultimately better for both us and our patients.”

Richard believes that as a profession it's about coming together to create change.

"As a united group of doctors, we have the power to change it, we just have to not make it worse for ourselves... You know, have the courage to call it out, and say that it's not okay."

A journey for our planet

Gareth explains that they will be collecting climate data every day, which is an extremely important initiative for the future of our planet, as currently they are still operating of Scott's Terra Nova expedition in 1910. This was 110 years ago.

"We love the natural world, we spend as much time as we can and in the world's wild places. So we  feel like we have a responsibility to conserve what we love.

So it will be the longest longitudinal climate research since since Scott and his Terra Nova expedition. On Scott's Terra Nova expedition, it was the first expedition to the Antarctic and they got a significant amount of scientific data (that's still used today), as the basis of a lot of meteorological work in Antarctica and oceanographic work.

Alone, we've got 75 days to collect climate data every day. So our sleds are essentially our mobile climate stations. We will be collecting everything from air temperatures, snow conditions, to cloud covers, and all sorts of things, and all the data will go to the Australian Antarctic programme to help them build climate models of now, and then from that they can extrapolate that into the future.

They can look at how our climate is changing, and what we can do to mitigate that. And so, we're hoping to leave a lasting contribution to climate science and make an effort to combat climate change into the future.

And through Scouts, Australia and Scouts, New Zealand we're working to try and inspire the younger generations to care about Antarctica, and to get excited about it, and to show them that they've got the opportunity to be the custodians of our planet into the future."

You can follow the boys journey here and on the Medworld private platform.

Article by
Dr Gareth Andrews & Dr Richard Stephenson

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