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Better Than Medicine: Interview with Dr. Veronique Verhoeven

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Even if she’s only slipping you a few extra seasickness meds, your ship doctor can mean the difference between a comfortable expedition cruise and one where you spend most of your time clinging to the toilet and wondering why waves exist.

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

A chat with a polar expedition cruise doctor

When you’re taking a polar expedition cruise, you are usually far from a hospital. In fact, you’re often days away from even the most remote small-town medical facility.

This is almost never an issue, of course, but it does make your onboard doctor that much more important.

Even if she’s only slipping you a few extra seasickness meds, your ship doctor can mean the difference between a comfortable expedition cruise and one where you spend most of your time clinging to the toilet and wondering why waves exist.

Veronique Verhoeven has been helping our passengers avoid this fate for years. A veteran in her field, she not only practices medicine but teaches it, and over the last ten years has joined Oceanwide on multiple voyages in both the Arctic and Antarctica.

To benefit from her medical wisdom, we asked Veronique a few questions about her experiences in these wild and wildlife-filled regions.

How did you get your start in medicine?

I studied in Antwerp, Belgium, specializing in family medicine with supplementary training in emergency medicine. Nowadays I still work as a professor at Antwerp University.

But while I love my job, once in a while – well, a few times a year – adventure calls and I join a ship to the ends of the world.

Where does this impulse come from?

As a child I devoured books on great explorers, and I hoped to become one of them one day.

Now I find myself really close to these childhood dreams, escaping routine and discovering remote places… But in much more comfortable conditions than the heroes in my books.

True, they didn’t set the bar very high on comfort. What was your first experience in the polar regions?

My first expedition was a ten-day field trip with biology students in Svalbard in 2004. We stayed in tents on the tundra, got up every night for a polar bear watch, cooked freeze-dried meals, and ate them with frozen hands.

I was not well prepared for this kind of expedition: My clothes were not waterproof, and my tent and boots were leaking. But I completely fell in love with the Arctic.

We know the feeling. How did this lead to Oceanwide?

I was trying to find a way to see more of these amazing areas, so I sent a letter to Oceanwide asking your staff to give me a chance as a ship’s doctor. They said yes.

That was smart of us. Since you’ve been on so many voyages, naturally we have to ask for a few trip highlights.

How many can I list?

As many as you’d like. We never cut anyone short on highlights.

Well, there was that evening we spent walking on the fast ice in the Ross sea, with the sky all yellow and a pod of orcas checking us out. We could even hear them breathe!

Then there was the day we reached the emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island, which was an absolutely transcendent experience.

Or that time we watched the sunset in Paradise Harbour, Antarctica. Or seeing the northern lights in Greenland. Or that sunrise landing in Gold Harbour, South Georgia, and the long walk we took on the tundra in Svalbard.

These are memories that for me will last a lifetime, like stepping into a nature documentary but better.

Do you have a favorite activity during these cruises?

I like the walks. They’re perfect for having a chat with your fellow travellers, and that’s also part of the attraction: You meet so many interesting, like-minded people from all over the world on these voyages and walks, and they often have surprising stories to tell.

Even on sailing days, I just enjoy watching the horizon and the sea life from the bridge or outside decks. I can do this for hours.

It’s a true balm for the soul, a lot better than any medicine.

And we probably can’t interview a polar cruise doctor without talking about seasickness at least a little bit.

I’ll tell you a secret about my time as a ship’s doctor: I’m very empathetic with our passengers when they are seasick, because I still get seasick myself sometimes. It often makes my shipmates laugh.

My advice is, don’t worry too much about seasickness.

It’s a pretty miserable feeling, but it always passes, and as soon as the ship is in calmer waters again, you immediately forget about it. Many people experience no problems with seasickness at all, but even if you do, afterwards it is worth every second of it.

That’s a promise!

We couldn’t agree more. Do you find that most passengers are well prepared for polar travel health-wise?

Most anyone can join a trip, yes, but only if you’re reasonably fit. Medical problems that are easily solved at home can become real issues on board.

We have limited medical resources on the ships, and we often travel to very remote places without access to hospital care. It’s important to fill in your personal medical information form when booking a trip and contact your agent or the OEX office if you have any doubts.

Sound advice. Any last-minute medical tips?

Yes, a serious one. Quite often passengers on these trips catch the “polar bug,” which means they get so passionate about the polar regions that they keep coming back again and again.

Sadly, there is no cure for this – but then, I’ve never had anybody ask for one!

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