This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you first walk into the building, everyone claps to welcome you. They didn't tell me that, so at first I was, like, "Were they expecting the plane to crash? Why are they clapping?"
But it was very welcoming. It's a really close-knit community at Canadian Forces Station Alert. In the summer, there are roughly 130 people, but that drops down to about 70 or 75 in the winter. As the physician assistant, or PA, I was responsible for their health.
It's scary, initially. I knew I had the safety net of a doctor on the other end of the phone or a video teleconference should I need it. But I was a recent graduate. When I went up there, I had been a PA for about a year, and going up there doing independent duty – because even with the doctor at the other end of the phone, it's considered independent duty – was a little nerve-racking. But you adapt and you learn to respond to the emergencies. And yes, we had emergencies.
I had a civilian gentleman have a heart attack while he was up there. Of course, I went through all of my training and went through the process, called the doctor and requested an evacuation.
With 24 hours of daylight and 24 hours of darkness, there are a number of health considerations. At both times of the year, insomnia is a big thing. Normally, our circadian rhythm responds to natural light, so any effect on the daylight can change your sleep patterns, which, of course, affects your mood and things like that. They're very good about providing blackout curtains and shutters in the rooms for the 24 hours of daylight, and it's part of our responsibility in preventative health care to reinforce turning on the lights, opening the shutters, getting out and getting involved, then winding down for the night and slowly turning off the lights so you're resetting the rhythm normally.
Isolation can also affect people's moods. So part of our job is to help organize social functions and make sure people are staying interactive. We had an activity every day for the two weeks leading up to Christmas. We had a Rock Band video-game competition, a Nerf gun competition, capture the flag, a Santa Claus parade and, of course, Christmas dinner.
It also gets quite cold. In December, January, February and March, you can get -50 C and below, and when you have the wind chill on top of that, it can be really, really cold.
You do get the odd case of frostnip or frostbite, but for the most part people are really good at protecting themselves. I mean, you learn it quickly. You cover yourself up: goggles, glasses, scarves, mitts, gloves, multiple layers. But let's say you're going to the gym and it's 100 metres from the main building. One hundred metres in a snowstorm is different than 100 metres in good weather. If you don't dress appropriately, even within a few seconds at -50 C, you can get frostbite. Absolutely. But you get faster at putting on all your gear and you get used it. It's really not that bad.
Warrant Officer Hollie Butticci is a physician assistant based at Canadian Forces Base Borden. She returned in February after eight months at Canadian Forces Station Alert, known as the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth, 817 kilometres from the North Pole.
Read more stories in this series here.