According to the Bureau of Meteorology, last summer was the hottest on record with January experiencing a series of heatwaves that sent the temperature to record highs. While most of Australia and New Zealand sweltered, however, Dr Peter Platts, practice principal at St Albans Dental Centre in Christchurch, was spending time in one of the coldest places on earth—Antarctica.
Along with practice manager and dental nurse Jo Berry, they made the journey to McMurdo Station on the tip of Ross Island and then continued on to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. This was no pleasure trip. They were there to check the dental health and treat the scientists and staff of these remote research stations.
When Dr Platts first wondered how cold it was going to be, he discovered that at the South Pole station, there are two tunnels that run through a glacier underneath the base. These give access to a cave about 20 metres deep where the staff collect their water. On the day Dr Platts gave a hand collecting water, the temperature in the cave was -60°C.
St Albans Dental Centre became involved with the Antarctic research stations due to the fact that, 12 years ago, they were one of the first practices to embrace digital radiography. The National Science Foundation in Denver, Colorado, oversees the US presence in Antarctica through the Antarctic Search Contract (ASC). Each member of the American team undergoes a complete medical check and must pass a physical qualification prior to spending time on the ice. With New Zealand as the staging point between the USA and the Antarctic, St Albans Dental Centre dealt with any dental matters that arose and related that information back to Denver.
“Historically, we used to post films back and forth which was very inefficient,” says Dr Platts. “By embracing digital radiography so early, we were able to email X-rays instantaneously. This, more than anything, cemented our relationship with the American team.”
The ASC appointed a full-time dentist to spend each summer in Antarctica. However, the staff are thoroughly checked before leaving the USA so they are all dentally fit on arrival. The dentist was really there for emergencies, performing the odd filling or fixing the occasional cracked tooth.
Last year the entire US Arctic program was taken over by Lockheed Martin. They were looking at cost-cutting and the dentist was the first person to go. “The previous dentist spent a lot of time driving trucks and doing other jobs because there simply wasn’t enough work for him,” says Dr Platts.
Lockheed Martin approached St Albans Dental Centre in September last year and asked if they would be interested in going to Antarctica four times a year. “We were very interested,” says Dr Platts. “As we’re part of Dental Corp, we ran everything through them and put in a tender.”
Initially, the tender was rejected. Then, a week before Christmas, Lockheed Martin suddenly agreed—provided they could fly down on January 7. “All of a sudden I was going to Antarctica during a period I had patients booked. It was a really hectic process and I had to reschedule two weeks’ worth of appointments in order to be ready.”
Part of the tender included the addition of a dental nurse. Dr Platts chose to take the St Albans practice manager and qualified nurse, Jo Berry. Their mode of transport was a Hercules plane. “I wondered what I had gotten myself into when I first boarded,” says Berry, who’s worked for the practice for the past 10 years. “It’s an eight-hour flight and the interior of the plane is very basic. You sit among the cargo so the busier the flight, the less leg room. You also need to carry all your gear with you so it’s a bit of a tight squeeze.”
Dr Platts and Berry saw about 80 patients during their time on the ice. “All of the staff had well-maintained teeth so the dentistry was pretty mundane,” says Dr Platts. “We did a lot of cleans, a few fillings and one extraction of a wisdom tooth. We also brought along a portable Digora digital radiograph that we hired from Radiographic Supplies in Christchurch. We used this to send updated X-rays back to the States.”
After dealing with the staff at McMurdo Station, the team was flown to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. Some of the scientists were planning to ‘winter over’ so it was vital that there teeth were in good shape. The work was completed in a day but then things started to go wrong. “Each day there are three flights scheduled out of the South Pole but for one reason or another, they kept getting cancelled,” Dr Platts recalls. “ We ended up being stuck there for a week.”
With time to kill, they donned cross-country skis and explored the surrounding area. Dr Platts was also reading The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a recount of Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition. “I read that on January 18, 1912, Scott arrived at the pole. I figured out where he would have come from and re-enacted his arrival exactly 102 years to the day.”
While both Dr Platts and Jo are keen to return to Antarctica, there are other staff at St Albans Dental Centre that would like to share the experience. Before that happens, however, a few details need to be ironed out between the practice and Lockheed Martin.
Dr Platts explains, “Initially we agreed to be paid only while we were working. In hindsight, this was a mistake. You soon realise that transport is very unreliable down there and you spend a lot of time just sitting around. We would also like much more warning before departure. If we are to make it a regular thing, we need to set up the practice down there like a branch of St Albans. It should be in a configuration with which all the staff are familiar. That way we can get in there, do the work and get out. That would also make it cost effective for Lockheed Martin.”
Jo Berry can’t believe she’s now a member of an elite group—people who have visited the South Pole. “It was a fascinating experience that I would like other members of staff to experience. The landscape is incredible but it’s the people you meet that’s the best part of the job. I would return in a heartbeat.”