In the movie, The Right Stuff, the first U.S. astronauts have to endure long physical exams before they can go into space. Writers like me who want to go to Antarctica are also required to get physicals, not as extensive as the astronauts, thank goodness, but still pretty thorough.
The first of the checkups I needed to qualify for the Antarctic trip started July 30, with a complete dental exam.
My dentist, Jason Hamada, and his assistant Noelia were required to take a full set of x-rays of my teeth, then mount these x-rays and send them to Raytheon Polar Services. The x-rays were made using new digital x-ray "film." The process is so quick that the doctor was examining the first x-ray on a computer screen seconds after it was taken. I got to watch as he saw a questionable place on a tooth, then enlarged the image to get a better view which showed him there was no problem. After a little poking and prodding along my gumline I was pronounced to be cavity free with teeth and gums that would probably carry me through my visit to Antarctica. Whew! The doctor filled out the exam form for the office of Polar Research and I was done.
Or so I thought. It turns out that Raytheon cannot accept digital x-rays and so I had to go back to get conventional x-rays.
The Raytheon dentist spotted a cavity on my x-rays. Once I got that repaired I was done with my dental work and ready to go to the ice.
(I'm glad I'm over 30, if I were younger than that, the NSF would require me to have my last wisdom tooth extracted...ouch! I asked a dentist why I didn't have to get my wisdom tooth extracted and she said that it was because in older people the nerve may not heal well after the wisdom tooth is extracted.)
Of course the dental x-rays could be used to identify my remains in case of an accident, which just serves as a reminder that going to the Antarctic is probably the most dangerous adventure I will ever go on. Over 50 people have died while working in the Antarctic over the last 50 years. Since about 5000 people a year work in the Antarctic this means that there is 1 chance in 5000 of not coming back. Doing a quick comparison I calculated that 40,000 of the 200,000,000 people in the US die each year in auto accidents which means that there is a 1 in 5000 chance of dieing during a year of driving. So the odds of surviving Antarctica seem reasonable, since I choose to drive each year without giving the danger a second thought..
In mid August, I visited my fantastic doctor John Cranshaw for a complete physical including a resting EKG and a stress test.
There was no time to get into shape, but I keep in good shape all the time, bicycling an hour to work and home each day plus one to two days of mountain climbing every month..
Michelle welcomed me to the stress test. She had me take off my shirt then she pulled out a razor and shaved patches on my chest for the EKG electrodes. When she was done, I looked like someone with a bad case of the mange, she suggested that I complete the job and shave my chest completely. Michelle used electrically conducting adhesive to glue 10 electrodes to my chest in a circle around my heart. Then she took a baseline EKG.
She then had me lay down and took an echocardiogram of my heart at rest. I got to see the screen, wow, here was the modern successor to sonar being used to show me a slice of my heart in operation. I could see the heart walls pumping in and out and the valves opening and closing. It looked good to me. (The echocardiogram is not needed for the trip to Antarctica but since I was taking a stress test my doctor and I decided to make it a good test since I often go on extreme mountain climbing expeditions.) Later Michelle changed settings and the different chambers of my heart flashed blue, then red. I asked what she was showing and was pleased to find out that these were doppler images of my blood flow, blue colors showed blood flowing toward me, red away! Pretty neat.
Cardiologist Dr. Espinosa arrived to monitor my heart EKG while I walked on the treadmill. The test usually lasts 15 minutes and the goal of the test is to get my heart beating at a target heart rate of 153 beats per minute for a 53 year old male like myself. They started the treadmill and I was off walking on flat ground at two miles an hour, no problemo just a nice warm up. After three minutes the treadmill tipped up and its speed increased. Every three minutes the exercise level increased. After 15 minutes when I was walking up a 20% grade at 5.5 miles an hour my heart was still cruising along under the target heart rate. The doctor said "150 beats per minute will have to suffice." and once again I had to lay down while they took echocardiogram images of my heart.
The tricky bit was that, if I breathed in, my lungs were too big to allow the sound waves to image my heart. So Michelle asked me to breathe out and then not breathe in, but I had just been jogging uphill so I needed to breathe. It was an interesting dance trying to allow Michelle to get good images of my heart and still get enough air to stay conscious at the same time. We finally got the images and I was pronounced physically fit enough to go to Antarctica. In fact I had performed much better than most younger athletes.
I was sent an entire box of vials to fill with blood and urine. I took my box down to the local Quest Diagnostics laboratory where they quickly and efficiently drew vial after vial of blood. Once again as an "old guy" I needed an extra test, a PSA exam to check for signs of prostate cancer. The results came back to my doctor, I passed the blood exam, although he noted that my cholesterol was creeping up and I might cut back on the fats in my diet.
In total these were the most thorough health checks I have ever had. A nice side benefit of going to the Antarctic.
The polar program requires me to get polarized glacier glasses. The ultraviolet radiation on the Ice is intense and theatens visitors with snow blindness, or sunburned corneas. I have had mild cases of snow blindness before, it felt like someone poured sand into my eyes. But I have never had it since I got my good pair of glacier goggles a decade ago. Unfortunately, my old glacier goggles are not polarized, so I will be getting new ones. It will be nice to get a pair of goggles with my new prescription including gradient bifocals. Then I'll be able to read maps and climbing guides while I am on the mountain without removing my glasses.
Return to Antarctica.
Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty
31 July 2000