JULY 2001- Contents
Travel & Adventure
the-south-asian.com July 2001
Page 2 of 2
A DOCTOR'S WINTER OF
CONTENT by Isidore Domnic Mendis
A DOCTOR'S WINTER OF CONTENT
Isidore Domnic Mendis
" Our work was complex and diverse. Like the previous expeditions, we were also involved in studying life in relation to the Antarctica. My job was to see that our team members remained medically fit and also to study the effect of South Pole's magnetism on the human body," says Dr. Vilku.
According to her, common problems associated with such harsh conditions are dental ailments, cold injuries, constipation, skin problems, hair loss and psychological problems.There can be a severe depletion of Vitamin C, E and folic acid in the body. Drinking water derived from the melting snow is devoid of all minerals. "That's why I insisted that everyone have sprouts as they are an excellent source of vitamins," says she.
In early 1999, Dr. Vilku had responded to an advertisement of the Department of Ocean Development---which conducts Indian expeditions to the Antarctica---for the assignment of the team's doctor. In her application, she said she was eminently suitable for the job, as she was used to staying in high altitude areas because of her tenure with the Assam Rifles. She had also accompanied her husband, Col. K.S. Vilku to his postings to various snow bound areas of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.
" The experience of staying in high altitude areas was the main clincher for my getting selected for the Antarctica expedition," feels Dr Vilku.
One of the prerequisites to be a part of the expedition is to pass a psychological exam which tests whether a candidate has the mental capacity to withstand the pressures of living in Antarctica--one of the most inhospitable parts of the world.
Antarctica is a very harsh continent, says Dr. Vilku. There are no inhabitants and all one sees are miles and miles of snow all around. The temperatures can sink to minus 60 degrees in winters and remain around minus 20 degrees in summer. There is no sunlight for three to four months in winters. Conversely, in summers daylight can stretch round the clock for months. Here the sun rises from the east and also sets in the east.
Dr. Vilku says in summers it got so
disorienting that they had to have thick curtains to lull themselves into
believing that it was dark and time to go to sleep. In winters, they had
special lights that emitted rays like sunlight to help them distinguish
between day and night.
Those who are selected to go to the Antarctica are trained to have a very positive attitude. Dr. Vilku says she has already forgotten the ferocity of nature and only remembers the beauty of the continent.
The most memorable part of their stay in Antarctica, she says, was seeing the Aurora Australis, which is a celestial phenomenon of beautiful dancing lights in the sky in different colours and shapes caused by electrified particles emitted by the sun.
She also remembers the ever-changing forms of snow as also penguins, skuas and terns--the two migratory birds whose going away heralds winter and coming back means summer. " It's one of the most environmentally friendly places in the world. Pollution is unheard on this white continent," she says.
As per an inter-nation environment treaty, it is mandatory upon all teams to keep the area pollution free. " We had to burn our garbage and bring even the ashes back to India. Environment enforcement can be done by any visiting expedition with a 24-hour notice. During her stay, the Indian station was thoroughly checked by a Norwegian team.
The expedition members flew from Mumbai to Cape Town in South Africa on December 6, 1999 from where the team took a German ship. Earlier expeditions set sail from Goa directly to Antarctica. But now the journey via South Africa is far more economical.
The Indian station called Maitri (Friendship) measures 10 by 8 cubical feet and is made up of wood on iron plate. There are individual rooms, a large dining room, library and common area. Heaters run by a powerful generator provide warmth and water is pumped from a nearby lake, Priyadarshini named after Indira Gandhi. Maitri is India’s second station. The first, Dakshin Gangotri constructed in 1983 submerged in ice in 1989.
Apart from India, 27 countries have put up 44 stations in the Antarctica mostly for the purpose of scientific experiments. Russia has five, America four and India, China, Japan and South Korea one each.
" There is complete camaraderie among team members," says Dr. Vilku, who has done her masters in transfusion medicine from the Post Graduate Institute of Chandigarh. " There is no superior-subordinate relationship. Every team member has to contribute to the work. That includes clearing of snow and garbage disposal. I used to cook food for the entire team on Sundays as it was the off day for our cook."
Besides looking after the health aspect of the team, Dr. Vilku also attended to a few emergency cases that included a suspected spinal injury due to a fall from an oil tanker, a hand crushed in the door of a container, a severe burn injury and a cyst in the chest.
She herself had a close brush with death when she was taking pictures of the scenery atop a German ship. A blizzard started blowing at over 180 nautical miles that could have swept her away had the radio officer not pulled her inside a room.
Did she encounter any psychological problems being the only woman in a 24-member team? " Though I got tremendous support from all the team members, I did miss the company of women. But I didn't let that weigh on my mind. Whenever I had time, I would go for long walks or listen to music or paint. I did a lot of paintings," she says.
And those canvases are something she
treasures the most. In fact, later in the year she plans to put up a show
exhibiting the continent in all its breath-taking beauty. " It's a big
challenge as all of Antarctica is like one huge white canvas. It brings out
your creative best," says Dr. Vilku who also holds a four-year diploma
in fine arts.
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