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Intensive study in extreme environments

Dr Jan Wallace recalls her experience of the unique Expedition Medicine course.

Photo: Dr Jan Wallace stationed in Antarctica

Dr Jan Wallace recalls being cold, wet, hungry, and tired in the middle of the night, in Tasmania’s rugged mountain highlands, as being…perfect.

In July 2014, Jan took part in scenario-based training as part of the University of Tasmania’s Expedition Medicine course; an eight-day intensive and practical course run in partnership with the Australian Antarctic Division. 

“The course was held at Bronte Park and Mount Rufus in the middle of winter after an unseasonally large snow dump," Jan said.

“There was at least half a metre of snow. We had trouble just getting transported in. I’d never even worn snowplough boots before. We were very much exposed to the elements.”

Trees falling onto campsites with multiple casualties, an ice-pick through the thigh of a bushwalker, a white-water raft flipping with rafters still submerged, and a group of mountaineers stuck on the summit were just some of the scenarios the group of health-based practitioners and undergraduate students were faced with.

There were people screaming, our teaching staff used moulage [injury makeup] kits to create realistic injuries. We needed to create order out of chaos and deliver first-class pre-hospital care.

Jan studied Expedition Medicine as an elective unit in the Master of Public Health.

She has been a doctor for 36 years, with a particular specialisation in healthcare in remote and extreme environments. Part of her job sees her working in Antarctica for the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). She completed her master’s remotely – while in Antarctica. 

The Expedition Medicine course, Jan believes, was by far the most realistic and relevant training she undertook for the role working as a sole health professional in Antarctica.

We were replicating skills and incidents that occur in my workplace. There’s no triple zero in Antarctica. We are the fire brigade; we are the search and rescue service.

Jan heard about the Master of Public Health through the AAD’s Chief Medical Officer who was involved in the Remote and Polar Health Stream course development. Her master’s thesis was designed to feed valuable knowledge back into AAD. She investigated the first aid capabilities of contemporary Antarctic expeditioners, and their perceptions of their abilities to respond to emergencies in Antarctica.

“I found that the higher the level of training, the more competent people felt. If they had been called upon to provide first aid in the past, they felt more confident, regardless of the training they had.”

Jan is a principle in a group general practice in Melbourne and is currently preparing for her fourth year-long deployment to Antarctica, as the expedition medical officer with AAD. 

“My husband is also an expeditioner, so while we miss our family when we’re away, we are making the most of the window of opportunity we have to work in such a unique environment.

“It is a hostile place which you don’t see in the tourism cruise brochures, but it’s now very much part of our life. 

“To be there to witness the beauty and rhythm of the light and to see the seasons change is very special.”

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