South Pole Doctor
Will Silva, M.D., enjoys life at 100 below.Silva at the Ceremonial South Pole, a barber-pole striped, three-foot-high column topped by a silvery metal ball and located about 50 meters from the geographic South Pole. Flags of the 12 original (1961) Antarctic Treaty signatory nations surround the ceremonial pole.
Photograph courtesy of Will Silva
The Three Hundred Degree Club is exclusive, and the atmosphere can be frosty: membership is limited to those who have experienced a temperature change of 300 degrees Fahrenheit within a negligibly short time. The 200 degrees above zero are easy to come by, available inside any good sauna. It's the 100 below that require an exotic locale, such as the South Pole, where Will Silva '74 joined the club. After sweating in a 205-degree sauna, Silva, wearing naught but shoes, sprinted outside into the -100-degree air for a minute or so. "You listen to the ice crackling on your skin and howl at the moon a little before going back in," he chuckles, adding that the club enrolled about a dozen new members during his year-long stay at the pole, which ended in November 1998. Silva, however, is one of those who can't get enough of a cool thing: he has just returned to the ice for another year-long hitch, this one at the tiny Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.
At the bottom of the world, Silva was the most general of general practitioners, serving the South Pole community as its sole doctor. He handled every medical situation, including dentistry. It was a type of medical practice he had begun to long for after 14 years as a Seattle internist, amid increasing stress from the demands of corporate medicine. "As an Antarctic station doctor, you bring so much more to the job than your medical skills," he explains. "It's important who you are as a person, the conversations you have in you, the stories you have to tell. You can't leave your work 'at work.' It's all the fabric of your life."
Indeed, the South Pole community is a tight one. Silva served a summer population of 200, a number that thinned to 28 in winter--six months of night that last from March until September. "After that last plane leaves in mid February, nobody comes in or goes out for love or money," he says. Winter airplane landings are nearly impossible, a fact that adds a certain critical quality to medical care. When Silva's medical successor found a tumor in her own breast, a risky air drop of medical supplies--a package with flashing lights attached, parachuted out of the darkness onto the ice--was the only way for her to begin chemotherapy.
Right: A frosty-bearded Silva returns from skiing. The station's geodesic dome is in the background at left.
Photograph courtesy of Will Silva
Humans have been consistently present in Antarctica since the International Geophysical Year of 1956-57, when scientists established a base there. There are now three fixed American stations on the coldest continent. The largest is McMurdo Station, on an island near the Ross Ice Shelf, whose summer population numbers 1,200. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where Silva worked, is currently building a new facility that will be ready in a few years. Far from light pollution, the pole boasts one of the world's best astronomical observatories, and astrophysics accounts for most of the science there. The smallest outpost, where Silva now lives, is Palmer Station, whose summer population of 40 shrinks by half in winter.
The National Science Foundation administers the Antarctic program and accepts bids from private contractors every 10 years to run the stations. Silva's official employer is Antarctic Support Associates Inc., of Denver, which hired him after he answered a classified ad in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Taking this job filled me with the kind of optimism and enthusiasm that I thought I had left behind as a young fellow," he says. "After I'd accepted the position and given notice where I'd been working, I went out for a therapeutic bike ride, with the Grateful Dead in my ears. It was the first time in years that I felt 100 percent in character. That's never gone away."
Silva grew up in New Haven and attended Choate, which he calls "a good education and a social disaster. I was one of two Jewish kids out of 110 in my class. It was a socially isolating experience." At Harvard he got interested in medicine and took up mountain climbing and back-country skiing: "I'd cut organic chemistry lectures on Friday afternoons to head for New Hampshire and go ice climbing." A violinist, he occasionally played Mozart and Beethoven violin sonatas in the bell tower of Lowell House with a climbing friend who was a good pianist. More often, Silva was "into the outdoors, in the woods, in rowboats, canoes, fishing, bird-shooting," he says, adding, "I see myself as a living organism inside a bigger living organism called Starship Earth--that's what set me up for going to the ice."
Silva completed medical school at the University of Rochester and interned in Madison, Wisconsin, a time he recalls as "a hell of a year" that ended when he finished his internship, broke off a relationship, and "threw my climbing gear into the back of an old Saab and headed West" for a road trip through western Canada and the northwestern United States. "It was the first time I'd been off the golden escalator since I'd gotten on."
During his residency at Boston City Hospital, Silva saved up four weeks of vacation and, with friends, climbed the technically demanding Cassin Ridge up Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America, in 1981. "It was an intense, far-out experience," he recalls. "We were way over-extended, but happily we got away with it. We camped at 19,800 feet, below the ridge; if we'd been blitzed by a big storm we'd have had a hard time extricating ourselves. That was the most intense thing I'd ever done. It was a very committed thing to do."
Of polar skiing, Silva says: "Welcome to space. You can see forever, but there's nothing to see for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Photograph courtesy of Will Silva
Before long Silva moved to Seattle by way of Nepal, where he spent a few weeks trekking with an old friend. In Seattle he became a primary-care physician, but eventually found the productivity demands of contemporary medicine highly alienating: "How many bodies did you see? How much money did you gross? It was quite disgusting," he says. By the summer of 1997 things were coming to a head. "The bar kept going up and up: increase your productivity by 20 percent, take a pay cut of 25 percent. I seldom had dinner on the table before 10:30 p.m. Inside I was in a state of war. It was beating the hell out of me."
Thus, the Antarctic opportunity was timely. Silva reached the South Pole in November 1997 and moved into his heavily insulated living cubicle/treatment room beneath the station's geodesic dome. He estimates that he had 400 to 500 patient visits during the year, many for skin complaints due to the dry polar air. Altitude illness is also common, since the South Pole station is 9,300 feet above sea level. In winter, the absence of a light/dark cycle disrupts biorhythms, with consequent sleep disturbances.
Despite temperatures that "warmed up" as high as -5 degrees in early January and could drop to -100, Silva went outdoors every day for at least half an hour, and skied an hour or two nightly in the summer. "Ski the South Pole!" he exults. "Two miles of base, a quarter inch of powder!"
Antarctic life means donning about 30 pounds of clothes to venture outside, and hearing one's frozen breath sounding "like a trickle of sand on a piece of paper" as it passes along one's balaclava. Silva read more books in his Antarctic year than he had in the previous five. On the ice, a computer and e-mail are a "porthole" on the rest of the world, he explains. The polar community creates diversions for itself--parties, movie nights, and events like the "round the world" footrace over a 2.2-mile route encircling the pole. There were also less cheerful moments, as when three daredevil skydivers augured into the ice and Silva earned the dubious distinction of being the first South Pole doctor to exhaust the station's supply of body bags.
The polar winter begins around March 21, when the sun goes down for half a year. "The truth about wintering at the pole is that it entails a lot of drudgery and, occasionally, sheer magic. Little actually happens; the horizon becomes internal," reads an entry from Silva's journal. Yet outdoors, he says, "The moon rises full or nearly full throughout the dark time. Because of the darkness, the light of the full moon on the ice seems like daylight." As winter nears its end, the sun gradually reappears over the course of five or six weeks--at first, as a faint glow on the horizon--and then pops up on September 21 or 22. "It's marvelous, beautiful, when it happens," he says. Year-round, he adds, the polar sky "is incredible. You climb up a ladder, throw back a hatch, and there's the Aurora Australis overhead--like gigantic cords and bands, shaken from one end as though by a giant hand. It's the closest I'll come to being on another planet, or in space."
~ Craig Lambert