The University of Arizona

Physician, UA Alumnus Treats Patients in Antarctica

By Shannon Maule, College of Medicine Alumni Newsletter | April 3, 2013

A graduate of the UA College of Medicine-Tucson is working in Antarctica for six months, treating scientists working at a biological research station.

Palmer Station in Antarctica is home to scientists conducting research.
Palmer Station in Antarctica is home to scientists conducting research.
Dr. Mitchell Cordover says working internationally and in remote areas always has been of great interest to him.
Dr. Mitchell Cordover says working internationally and in remote areas always has been of great interest to him.
In Antarctica, Cordover calls penguins his neighbors.
In Antarctica, Cordover calls penguins his neighbors.
Cordover also regularly sees seals. Rules exist, he says, about not interacting with the wildlife.
Cordover also regularly sees seals. Rules exist, he says, about not interacting with the wildlife.

Dr. Mitchell Cordover's neighbors are seals and penguins, and he has the pictures to prove it.

The University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson alumnus currently is serving as the only physician at Palmer Station, Antarctica, for six months.

Cordover, a member of the class of 1982, left his home in Missouri in early October. After 13 hours of flight time and a four-day ship passage from the southern tip of South America, he arrived at the small biological research station, a part of the United States Antarctic Program.

Cordover's daily routine is far from ordinary. His workday begins at 7:30 a.m. and finishes at 5:30 p.m. Acting as the only physician on Palmer Station demands varying tasks.

"My job includes treating scientists and support team members on a daily basis and maintaining readiness for significant emergencies. I have an X-ray machine, a very sophisticated telemedicine program, lab machines – all of which I have to be testing on a rotating and regular basis to make sure that everything is ready," he says. "I have dive accident and hypothermia equipment, and I maintain my own pharmacy. Additionally, I deal with public health matters like testing the water sources for contamination, conducting kitchen inspections, etc."

"I also do some snow shoveling," he adds, with a laugh. "There is no janitorial staff here, either. They wanted to keep the beds for scientists. We all pitch in to keep the place clean and safe."

The project was first established in 1967 and is funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF requires all scientists and support team members to undergo many tests before they are accepted into a position in Antarctica. Therefore, Cordover says his peers are very healthy.

"I'm starting with a very small and healthy population. I might see as few as one or two patients in a day because there are only 38-40 of us here right now. Because the base is small, I see everybody all the time. Much of the follow up work I do is during coffee breaks or after dinner. It's an informal, very intimate type of medical environment," he says. "One of the most meaningful parts of this job is feeling like I'm really supporting the important science that's going on here."

Cordover says working internationally and in remote areas always has been of great interest to him, especially in recent years.

"I decided to retire, but that only lasted for a couple of weeks. Then the opportunity arose to go to New Zealand, and I picked up on it, and now I'm in Antarctica. I apparently wasn't ready for retirement," he says.

Cordover says having a level-headed son who has reached the age of 15 has freed him to try new things, like reinventing what it means to be a doctor.

"You have to redefine what it means to be a physician. For me, retirement does not mean losing the skill or wasting a lifetime of knowledge. It's about reshaping and seeing the practice through a new lens," he says. "For me to sit around and play shuffle board is inconceivable."

Although members of Cordover's family were able to journey with him from the United States to New Zealand, they were unable to join him this time around. The research base is the smallest of the three U.S. stations in Antarctica, sleeping only 44 people at capacity.

Fortunately, the 65-year-old physician says he can communicate with his family almost every day.

"Remarkably, it's not hard to stay in touch. It used to create a challenge to morale, but improved technology has made it much easier," he says. "Computer and satellite capabilities have improved. I can message back and forth, do face-to-face computer chatting and make phone calls. The whole place is wired for wi-fi."

The technological capabilities of the site also allow for easy and effective telemedicine. Cordover says he is able to get specialists to help evaluate medical tests, images or video in real time and consultations to assist with treatment decisions within hours. Radiology 'over reads' are always less than 24 hours. It's as good as most U.S. hospitals.

"The subcontractor that provides telemedicine to the Antarctic program is the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. They are a very active agent in telemedicine, providing it for ships at sea and for rural programs as well," he says.

Cordover says that telemedicine technology has improved the quality of medical care in remote areas care and made practicing far safer for patients.

"There is a high-definition camera here, and I can arrange within an hour or less for someone to be on the other end at UTMB. In addition to a camera, I have a number of fixtures that attach to my telemedicine camera that allow me to examine various things that can be seen by physicians on the other end," he explains. "There is a slit lamp side arm, cavity probes, close-up lenses and so on. The specialists can help me analyze whatever I'm looking at. I read my own X-rays, but I need a radiologist to do over reads on them, so I transmit my X-rays directly to their reading system. In a pinch I can call in and get a prompt read, with me and the radiologist looking at the same image on the screen."

"For little places like this that are isolated, it's crucial. It would take me days to evacuate with a patient. I have a little intensive care unit here. I can keep you on good pain medications. I have an ultrasound machine and I can put a drain into almost anything, but it would take days to get a patient anywhere. The boat is four days away and the nearest station that has an airport is 10 hours away by ship," he says.

It's clear the recent improvements in telemedicine have enhanced the safety of those working remote areas. The quick communication enables prompt, thorough patient care.

While it's easy to stay connected to others across the world, experiencing similar living conditions is almost unimaginable.

"We're just a tiny dot of settlement on a rocky point off of one little peninsula of a rather large Antarctic island. I think the entire campus is eight acres, but the part that we occupy is about two acres. We use a cluster of four buildings," he says. "When they originally built it, there wasn't any flat space. The buildings are connected by wooden walkways, with one man-made gravel road to get containers of food and supplies off the boat that comes about every month or two, depending on the time of year."

Although he says he never knew he'd end up spending time in Antarctica, he admits he's always loved providing health care in remote areas.

"It never crossed my mind that there was even work to do in Antarctica, but I always imagined working in isolated and challenging places. I did five years of public health work on the Navajo Reservation and that was a very satisfying, transformative experience for me," he says. "There were plenty of people who would do my ED job in St. Louis. But for me, those of my colleagues who don't mind a little inconvenience, there is almost an obligation to fill in where others might be reticent to go."

Since arriving at the station, Cordover says he's witnessed more than sophisticated science. He notes that the wildlife is one of the most interesting aspects of the Antarctic lifestyle.

"I just spent the morning watching whales from my back porch. For us working here, the wildlife can be a pain in the neck. There are very strict rules about not interacting with the animals in any way. We can't change their natural behavior," he explains. "The land around our station is one of very few places where an animal can pull up out of the water. I see penguins and seals all the time."

While he admits the penguins are cute and the seals are fascinating, he says they can get in the way of the productivity.

"There are three predominant species of seals in the areas. Some of them weigh as much as 11,000 pounds, and they heave up onto our boat ramp. You can't injure or harass them, so we have a guy who is designated as the 'seal wrangler' – he's a wildlife biologist. He and a couple of the others have this technique of chasing seals off the boat ramp," he says. "But if they won’t move, you're stuck. The penguins just pop out any old place they please. They are utterly unafraid because no one has ever bothered them before."

But when work is put aside, Cordover says he's been able to see some breathtaking sights.

"We have one day off per week. Sometimes we'll go up on the glacier to do skiing or photography, and there's also boating. The penguin chicks are just now hatching, and that's a neat experience to see," he says.

As captivated as he is by the wildlife, science and his peers at the station, Cordover says he's thankful for his UA College of Medicine-Tucson training and experiences.

"The University of Arizona was a unique place to get an education. It was much more personable, primary care oriented and humanistic than many other universities, according to all my friends," he says. "Egalitarianism and sensitivity – that has served me very well – that sense of humanity. I could have learned anatomy and biochemistry anywhere else, but what they've taught me has served my whole career."

Cordover will return home to Missouri in late April, but will have six months worth of memories, photos and experiences to last him a lifetime. With retirement as a foreign concept, one can hardly imagine where he will end up next.