BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — Although we typically associate doctors with large, busy, and sterile hospitals, medical professionals are needed in all parts of the world, and for all sorts of purposes. Over the previous week, students from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Emergency Medicine had the chance to see this idea firsthand, as they participated in a Zoom call with a doctor putting his medical experience to the test at the bottom of the world.
UND’s Department of Emergency Medicine is a fairly new addition to the school, but it has already come leaps and bounds in terms of helping bring new medical professionals into the workforce.
“The Department of Emergency Medicine is UND’s youngest department,” explains Chairman Dr. Jon Solberg. “Usually, the school gets one or two students every year matched into the field. Over the last three years since starting this department, we’ve increased this number to six to eight students a year.”
Increasing the number of new doctors in the state, however, is only part of the department’s goal. Solberg also notes that they also aim to bring experienced medical professionals to North Dakota through the promise of unique opportunities.
“Right now,” Solberg says, “we have fifteen UND alumni who are out there training to be ER doctors, and our hope is to recruit these students to come home and practice medicine here. One of the ways to do so is letting them know all of the interesting and unique things they can do as a doctor.”
Arguably the most unique aspect of the new school, and the one that draws the most attention from incoming students, is the way that the aim to showcase these unique opportunities that the career offers. This is the job of the department’s Wilderness Medicine Program — which teaches students that medicine can be used all across the world, from dense jungles to freezing tundras.
“Over the last three years,” Solberg recalls, “our Wilderness Medicine Program has been teaching average medical students about things like frostbite, hypothermia, altitude illness, and the care of the wilderness athlete. This has developed a whole interest group here about how to take care of people in austere environments.”
In order to both pique interest in wilderness medicine and recruit more professionals to North Dakota, Solberg intends to help his students learn that they can take their experience far beyond the traditional setting, and seeks to do so with the help of doctors in unusual conditions. And as luck would have it, earlier this year, he had become aware of one in just such a position: a man named Dr. Howard Rodenberg, who is serving as an on-site Physician at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station, located at the South Pole.
“Dr. Rodenberg and I are on the same Facebook group of ER doctors,” “and I saw that he had posted a photograph from the pole. I had been on an expedition to cross Greenland a couple of years ago and spent a month on the ice sheet. I was curious about his experiences, so I reached out to him to ask him how he got recruited and the kind of cases he was seeing. Then I found out his son is here, and that brought it back to North Dakota.”
Dr. Rodenberg himself has a rather long history in the medical field — in addition to over twenty years in the industry in fields ranging from clinical documentation to emergency medicine, he has also served as an Associate Professor at the University of Florida, the Director of Health for Florida’s Volusia County, and the Division of Health’s director for the state of Kansas. While all of these exploits are vastly different than his current endeavors, the doctor states that the offer not only appealed to his sense of adventure, but also grants him an opportunity to ‘contribute to the larger mission of science in Antarctica’.
On Tuesday, October 31st, UND’s Medical department hosted a live chat with Dr. Rodenberg, which was viewable by students in both Grand Forks and the school’s Bismarck extension — in which he discussed medical work and the Pole itself while answering questions from the soon-to-be medical minds of tomorrow. During the meeting, Dr. Rodenberg began by explaining the history of expeditions to the South Pole, as well as a brief description and showcase of many of the buildings located at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station.
Contrary to what some would expect, America’s South Pole sanctuary is well-stocked with everything a group needs to keep themselves occupied during their long stay — including a fully stocked library, rooms filled with board and video games, and even a gymnasium that can be converted into a movie theater. One of the station’s buildings also serves as an emergency ‘secondary living space’ and contains everything a team of researchers would need to survive (albeit not entirely comfortably) in the event that the other buildings become unusable. As part of their attempts to pass the time, these rooms are often used to host group events and bonding opportunities (such as movie and board game nights) — many of which serve as not only great ways to relieve stress on the ice, but also to help make yourself known as an important and friendly part of the team.
“Teamwork is key to survival here at the South Pole,” he explains. “We are an isolated community of 40 people from February to November, and each of us has a specialized role. If any of us fails in this role, it can jeopardize the health and safety of all. In addition, because where we live is the same place where we work, it’s important to be integrated into community to build a level of camaraderie and trust.”
Despite these different discussion topics, the main purpose of this Zoom meeting was to discuss how a doctor provides medical care in an isolated area like the South Pole, and this was of course a major topic throughout the event. Towards the end of his presentation, Dr. Rodenberg spoke about the difference between working a specific position in a full hospital with a crew and the more generalized work he performs as the only doctor on site. This, as one might expect, means that he is not only their emergency room doctor, but their surgeon, consultant, and even their dentist — which often serves as a test of his knowledge and ability to adapt to many different situations with limited resources.
The cold-based conditions in particular, Solberg believes, are important for young doctors in more wilderness-focused programs above all else — as hearing about the problems that traveling doctors may encounter on-site beforehand can help them prepare to deal with these problems later on down the line.
“Much of what we see is related to climate,” he notes. “The air here is very dry, so there are lots of skin problems. The altitude makes it difficult for people to sleep, so we help with this as well. We also do minor dental work, and help people manage with chronic medical problems such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol.”
At the end of the day, though, the doctor’s speech served a greater purpose than simply informing the medical students about life and work at the pole. Through events like this, he states that students can learn that there’s more to the profession than what many expect.
“I think it’s important for medical students to know that their medical degree does not limit them to simply working in an office or hospital,” Dr. Rodenberg states. “Your medical degrees prove to the world that you are smart, adaptable, and can overcome challenges. My hope is that my adventure can inspire medical students to look simply beyond the traditional physician roles to grow personally and professionally.”
“This fit in exactly with the kind of things students are interested in,” states Dr. Solberg. “They’re not interested in spending an entire career in one office or one hospital anymore. They’re starting to think globally, and about how they can use their skills to take care of people in any place at any time.”
At the end of the event, Dr. Rodenberg received an unexpected surprise when it was revealed that his son Brendan (a handsome and talented writer who just happens to be working for KX News, and is definitely not the one writing this column) was present for their conversation –who was presented with a set of surgical scissors, a ‘thank you’ present from UND’s medical program for his presentation, which will be delivered to the guest speaker upon his return to the states. Meanwhile, Dr. Solberg, who holds similar beliefs regarding the potential of medical students, states that UND intends on hosting more similar sessions in the future as part of their plan to bring new practitioners into the state and encourage them to pursue programs that can help add a unique touch to the at-times draining daily life of a medical professional.
“We want students to know that there’s a whole group of medical professionals working behind the scenes to care for the community,” Solberg explains. “They’re not just in hospitals in clinics. They’re writing protocol for ambulance services to take care of people in rural America. They’re deployed overseas with embassies and governments, taking care of diplomats. They’re serving in the military, working for NASA, or in the fields of missionary work and humanitarianism. It may be difficult to have an entire career doing something adventuring like that, but there’s a lot of talk about burnout in the medical field recently. Taking a medical career and injecting a little piece of adventure here and there is something that helps keep people fresh and excited about working in the field.”
Once Dr. Rodenberg has his scissors, he notes that they will most certainly not be used to cut his ties to North Dakota, and intends on taking up multiple shifts at CHI St. Alexius while his son remains in the area. As it turns out, though, he does not intend to sever the thread between him and the South Pole, either — as he believes that there are aspects of his time in the cold that can help him gain an appreciation for everything life has to offer.
“It’s very hard to get a sense of the moment in the day-to-day routine of life,” he states. “Here, it’s easier to take that step back because of the isolation, and you realize that everything around you — from the fact that you’re at the South pole to the fact that you’re sitting in short sleeves sleeves indoors there to the fact that the station was built over years and hundreds of cargo flights — is its own little miracle. My hope is to be able to take that sense back to the real world to recognize that every moment contains a miracle in its own way.”
More information about UND’s School of Medicine can be found on the University’s website. The full recording of Dr. Rodenberg’s presentation is expected to be posted soon.
In order to learn more about America’s operations at the South Pole, visit the Amundsen-Scott Research Station’s website — and to catch up with Dr. Rodenberg, you can visit his Antarctic Anecdotes blog (where he shares more stories of his experience in the South Pole) here.