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The Doctor Is In: Interview with Polar Expedition Doctor Lauke Bisschops

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Forget choosing between sprawling city hospitals and small boutique clinics, subways compared to streets, ambulances versus Uber versus your own speeding automobile. When you’re cruising in the Arctic and Antarctic, the nearest hospital is a long way off, and in terms of the health care, everyone has access to the same kind – and the same person. During her voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Dutch polar cruise doctor Lauke Bisschops told us all about her experience treating injuries, illnesses, and a surprising lack of sea sickness.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

Your One-Stop, See-All Practitioner in the Arctic and Antarctic

Forget choosing between sprawling city hospitals and small boutique clinics, subways compared to streets, ambulances versus Uber versus your own speeding automobile. When you’re cruising in the Arctic and Antarctic, the nearest hospital is a long way off, and in terms of the health care, everyone has access to the same kind – and the same person. During her voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Dutch polar cruise doctor Lauke Bisschops told us all about her experience treating injuries, illnesses, and a surprising lack of sea sickness.

What did you do before signing on as an Arctic cruise doctor?

I was an emergency physician for six years, and I’m currently in residency to become an elderly care physician. This is a medical specialty that only exists in the Netherlands. The physician tries to maintain and improve the quality of life for elderly people and chronic patients. I think my combination of emergency and elderly care, which mostly involves treating common complaints, is particularly useful on this ship. I know what to do in case of an emergency, and I also know how to treat everyday ailments. 

What are the everyday Svalbard ailments you’ve treated so far?

Mostly small problems: colds, stomach aches, minor injuries from the movement of the ship – if you’re reading this and you’re on your own polar cruise, keep your hands away from the doors! I only had one seasick patient, which was a surprise. Luckily all the patients I saw could be treated on the ship. Plancius has a well-equipped clinic with enough medication and supplies to treat most anything. I’ve also seen quite a few people who just wanted something checked out, something I don’t even need my stethoscope for. 

So nothing serious has happened? No frostbite, no Arctic yeti attacks?

Not yet, but then the cruise isn’t over! One woman did give me a scare recently. She looked like she might be having a heart attack, but after careful examination I saw it was something benign. In a situation like this, you get very focused. You realize you’re a long way from a hospital. My ER experience helps me stay calm and do what I have to do. Knowing what is happening and reacting on time is very important when you’re this far from help. 

Is being a sailing Svalbard doctor all that you expected?

I expected to be outdoors as much as possible, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I did not, however, expect to love the sky, clouds, and water so much. Sometimes it’s like you’re not even looking at the sky, but some kind of abstract painting. I have never seen anything like it in the world outside of an Arctic cruise. Standing on the bow of the ship as we sail between the icebergs, watching another ship disappear into the mist – these things make me feel like a real explorer. 

Are there perks to being an Arctic doctor, apart from the lack of seasickness?

I have a special place on board. I’m not a crew member and I’m not a passenger, but I’m a bit of both. So I get the best of both. Beside my tasks as a doctor, I also help on the gangway and do other things, such as watching for polar bears. I love doing that, but I’m not very good it. The guides and crew, especially Captain Alexey, are amazing at it. Real experts at spotting wildlife.

What’s been your most memorable Svalbard moment so far?

Easy, seeing my first polar bear. It’s amazing to see how big and powerful they are. I have seen them so much on television, and now to see them in real life is something I thought I was never going to experience before starting this job. And again, the sky and the clouds. I think I’ve taken at least a hundred pictures of just the sky. 

In your experience, is it easy for a doctor to make friends in the Arctic?

Actually, I’ve made friends with most of the expedition guides and plan to stay in contact with them. One of the guides is also from the Netherlands, so we’ll definitely see each other. I also plan to stay in touch with some of the crew from the ship. Visiting these people will not be easy, as almost all of them live and work in other places all over the world, but I’ll chat with them on WhatsApp or Facebook – once I’m back in a part of the world that has internet, that is.

Why Svalbard? Why not St. Barts or the Mediterranean?

I love to see a variety of places. This year I’ve already gone to Tanzania, the Philippines, and Honduras to travel and work as an expedition doctor. But the polar regions are, for me, more special. They are one of the last places on Earth where humans are not dominating the environment, but visiting it. The experience of an “unspoiled” place makes me feel small and realize what we are doing to the planet. And hearing lectures about the melting ice and seeing the struggling wildlife makes me realize we can’t ignore the fact that climate chance is happening right now, not at some vague future date. I think anyone who sees what it’s like here would feel the same.  

Would you ever sign on for another cruise? Is there an Arctic Doctor: Part Two?

How about Antarctic Doctor: Part One? In December I’m going on an Antarctica cruise for the first time. For me this is a great way to explore, practice my profession, and meet people from all over the world who are as excited about these places as I am. When Oceanwide asked me if I wanted to work on another cruise, I didn’t hesitate for a minute. I’d already heard so many stories about how amazing the nature was in Antarctica. I feel privileged to get this opportunity. 

And in Antarctica you’ll cross the Drake Passage, which is known for its rough seas – and hence, seasickness

Then I’ll make up for the seasickness I’m not treating right now!

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