We live in a time when it has never been easier to reach the far-flung corners of the world, but who’s looking after you along the way?
If you’re like us, then you’ll love to read and watch documentaries about explorers who head off into far-flung corners of the globe. Places like the North Pole, the Amazon, Antarctica or the Himalayas.
But with every successful expedition, there needs to be a strong and capable team to support it and keep everyone in tip-top shape. One of the key people to have in any expedition, if you fancy your chances of survival, is the team doctor and we had the opportunity to spend some time and chat with one such person.
Georgina East is an experienced expedition doctor having been on many varied assignments across the world and has kindly agreed to share with us some of her experiences, and what it actually means to be an expedition doctor.
T&S: Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us in between work and all the other things that must go on at camp.
Georgina: My pleasure! It’s wonderful to get to chat about my job/obsession with people who share my love of the outdoors. We are currently a tad stuck in some pack ice down in Antarctica so it’s the perfect time for a chat!
T&S: Where did it all start for you? Were you already a Doctor and then became an adventurer, or was it the other way round?
Georgina: It happened the other way around for me, I was always into the outdoors as a kid. Growing up in New Zealand I was fortunate enough to have parents and family friends that loved skiing, hiking and the outdoors – they fostered the same love in us kids and as such, I always had a desire to have the outdoors play a big part of my life and career.
I fell in love with medicine a little unexpectedly. After a failed stint in LA trying to be an actress, I took medical school entrance exams and was lucky enough to get an interview. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life or if medicine was for me.
I was thinking it over on a trip in Nepal when I met an Expedition Doctor whilst hiking. This was a revelation, I could combine medicine with my love of adventure and the outdoors?! I went home, accepted the interview and the rest is history.
I love the variation that each job brings and the ever-changing office window. No day is ever the same and no day is ever boring!
T&S: Have you always had a love for adventure or has it been something that’s grown with the job?
Georgina: I can pinpoint the day that I fell in love with adventure. I was 10 years old and some family friends kindly took me along with them to hike the iconic Milford Track in New Zealand.
They love to recount what a brat I was when I threw a tantrum on day 2. I lay down in the middle of the track and refused to move any further because my bag was too heavy! Although a complete brat, I did eventually get up and continue walking.
Four days of hiking coupled with the most magnificent boat ride I’ve ever been on – to this day – and I was addicted. I don’t throw tantrums any more but I am obsessed with having the lightest gear!
T&S: In terms of the groups that you go with, are they scientific based research teams or pure adventure junkies where nobody quite knows what’s around the next corner?
Georgina: The groups vary from one trip to another. I’ve been lucky enough to work with private groups of adventurers, scientific expeditions, and organized group tours going to remote locations. I love the variation that each job brings and the ever-changing office window. No day is ever the same and no day is ever boring!
While most of my training and preparation is focused on the worst-case scenarios like serious traumas, thankfully simple things are by far the most common.
T&S: What part of the World has the job taken you?
Georgina: I have been fortunate enough to have had my work take me to both polar regions, climbing in the Himalayas, Patagonia and the New Zealand Southern Alps, exploring the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, working in remote hospitals in Eastern Africa, motorbiking throughout India and following in the footsteps of Australian WWII soldiers in Kokoda. It’s been a real privilege so far!
T&S: What are the most common types of things you need to deal with on an expedition?
Georgina: While most of my training and preparation is focused on the worst-case scenarios like serious traumas, thankfully simple things are by far the most common. Most frequently team members are struck down with simple things like seasickness, abscesses, uncomplicated broken bones and soft tissue injuries.
Lancing a porter’s abscesses on a flat river rock is always a fun day. All of the team tend to crowd around in fascination – Laughing, gasping and consoling the patient whilst I perform the minor surgery.
T&S: You must spend a fair bit of time away from home, or has home now become many places for you?
Georgina: I am and always will be a proud kiwi! But home is where the heart is and thankfully my husband loves travelling and often meets up with me after Expeditions.
T&S: Spending time away from your family and friends must be tough. How do you keep in touch with them all whilst on an expedition?
Georgina: I’m one of four siblings and our family is very close. With a growing brood of nieces and nephews, it is more important than ever to keep in touch – Facetime has been a game changer. Thankfully my husband is a legend when it comes to my work and I often manage to drag him along to meet up after an expedition for our own adventure.
Learning about people from different cultures, their traditions, their humour, and the idiosyncrasies of a new city is what travel is all about.
T&S: Acclimatizing to a new country, cultures and languages must be a challenge. As a Doctor, do you need to know other languages or does the International body language or facial expressions cover all situations in an emergency?
Georgina: Learning about people from different cultures, their traditions, their humour, and the idiosyncrasies of a new city is what travel is all about. The differences between us can be inspiring and uplifting but also challenging and bewildering at times.
When struggling to make myself understood or to convey meaning, I always try to remember that a smile is universal… and when all else fails there is always google translate!
T&S: How do you train for an expedition? Does it depend on where you will be heading? What are the things you do in terms of physical and mental preparation?
Georgina: I try to keep fit when I’m home by running, swimming, hiking and rock climbing but whether or not I need to up my training depends on the type of expedition. There are, however, some things that no training can prepare you for like waking up to a minus 25-degree morning or hiking in the oppressive humidity of the jungle.
T&S: OK, so being lightweight must be a factor when packing, but what about treat foods. What are your top 3 must have comfort foods you take with you?
Georgina: Chocolate- I need some every day or I am not a happy camper. One Square Meal – the best granola/energy bar you will ever eat! Oh, I’m dreaming about these now. Granola – there is nothing worse than cooking breakfast in the mornings
Emergency evacuations tend to get the blood pumping… in my experience it is in these instances that the team truly shines.
T&S: During periods of downtime or very bad weather, what do you do to stave off the boredom and prevent cabin fever from setting in?
Georgina: I don’t think I have much that’s novel to offer here. Other than good chats, a good book and some cards. Kindles have completely changed the boredom game for me. A myriad of absolutely terrible escapist fiction keeps me sane at the end of a long day. The other must is a deck of cards, it helps to break the ice in new teams and stave off the boredom on a rest day.
T&S: You must experience some intense moments on expeditions, how do the team dynamics pan out in these situations?
Georgina: Emergency evacuations tend to get the blood pumping. Although always a sad time when a member of the expedition has to leave, in my experience it is in these instances that the team truly shines.
Everyone bands together to carry the injured, keep them warm and get them to the evacuation point whilst looking out for each other and encouraging one another to keep going. These times are truly memorable and inspiring.
T&S: What’s the process of being selected for an expedition? Do you put your name down as being available, like a job application and then receive a call in the middle of the night to jump on the next plane out of there?
Georgina: It varies from job to job. Sometimes opportunities come around via word of mouth but I also reach out to companies and teams I am keen on working with directly. Thankfully it’s never as urgent as jumping on a plane in the middle of the night as expeditions are usually planned months if not years in advance.
T&S: Are there any places that you haven’t yet visited and are on your bucket list, so to speak?
Georgina: Top of the bucket list is Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Ubekistan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – hopefully via motorbike with some alpine climbing scattered throughout.
T&S: So what’s coming up next for you?
Georgina: I’m pretty excited about the next adventure- I’m going to be working as one of the ski field doctors at Perisher for the winter! I cannot wait to hit the slopes and see some interesting medicine along the way.
T&S: We wish you all the best in your future expeditions and we’ll be following your adventures closely on Instagram and keep an eye out for you the slopes of Perisher and hope we don’t meet by accident. See what I did there?
To find out more about Georgina and keep up to date with her travels, head on over to her website.
Feature Photo: Kayaking glassy Arctic waters.