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For two USU alumni, this assignment is ‘chill’

A man stands next a building with a sign saying McMurdo General Hospital. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Tory Woodard, a USU School of Medicine class of 2001 alumnus, braves the snowfall outside the McMurdo General Hospital at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.  Woodard is finishing a 60-day deployment to the National Science Foundation site as part of “Operation Deep Freeze.”  The Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica flight surgeon joined fellow USU alum, Dr. Christopher Martinez, class of 2007, the lead physician and clinic director at McMurdo, in Antarctica.  (Courtesy photo)
By Sharon Holland

It’s not unusual for Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduates to have some cool assignments, but for two alumni, their current jobs take it to the extreme.

Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Tory Woodard, a graduate of USU’s F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine (SOM) class of 2001, and Dr. Christopher Martinez, SOM class of 2007, are currently working at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The U.S. Department of Defense has provided logistical support to the NSF’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), dubbed “Operation DEEP FREEZE,” every year since 1955. The annual undertaking is led by the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), which provides military transport, medical evacuation (medevac), search and rescue, and other support to the USAP.

A sign saying " McMurdo Station, Antarctica" overlooking snowy mountains
The Discovery Hut from British Royal Navy Captain Robert Scott’s 1902 expedition is barely distinguishable in the blowing snow at the NSF’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica.  Wintertime temps can dip as far down at -100 degrees F.  (Courtesy photo)

Woodard, the 35th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander at Misawa Air Base, Japan, volunteered for the 60-day deployment as Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) flight surgeon. PACAF offers three 60-day rotations to physicians each year to serve as the JTF-SFA flight surgeon. Two are filled by National Guard members, and only one is available for active duty physicians. Woodard applied for the program and was chosen to fill the active duty slot for the current two-month rotation.

The camera angles up from inside a column with rungs for climbing at someone at the top looking down and waving
Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Tory Woodard looks down the 15 ft.
observation tube used by scientists at the NSF’s McMurdo Station
in Antarctica.  The tube goes beneath the ice layer, providing
researchers a safe way to observe conditions under the surface.
(Courtesy photo)
Martinez, who retired from the Air Force about two years ago, is supporting the NSF’s frosty mission as a civilian physician employed by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB). UTMB supplies medical team members for several NSF research sites, including the South Pole, Palmer Station, and McMurdo Station. He will be at McMurdo Station for 6-7 months serving as the lead physician and clinic director. This is Martinez’s second trip to the ice. He spent last winter at Palmer Station, located on Anvers Island in Antarctica – the only U.S. research station located north of the Antarctic Circle.

In addition to his responsibilities running the clinic, Martinez helps see patients and interfaces between different agencies on the station as well as with the other NSF sites, Scott Base, New Zealand, and a number of vessels, including the NSF’s icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer and cruise ships sailing through the area.

Martinez is also part of the McMurdo leadership team and participates in a large facet of station planning and operations in his role as public health advisor and a member of the risk management team. He also has a role in any Emergency Operations Command standups, serves as the EMS/medical director for the McMurdo Fire Department and the McMurdo Search and Rescue Team, and provides medical oversight to any field camp healthcare providers.

A giant plane sits on ice as a group of people walk up to it
An Air Force C-17 cargo plane lands on the ice runway at the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica.  The U.S. Department of Defense has provided logistical support to the NSF’s “Operation Deep Freeze” every year since 1955.  The Air Force provides military transport, medical evacuation, search and rescue and other support to the program. (Courtesy photo)

Martinez also has the important responsibility to recruit and train the McMurdo Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) teams. The MCI teams are comprised of station members who volunteer as augmentees to fill various roles including communications, medical recording, technical support (labs, radiology, blood bank), litter teams, and hands-on patient care. By the end of their season, patient care providers will be trained to near-paramedic level, he said.

A doctor uses an ultrasound on a male patient's stomach
Dr. Christopher Martinez (left),a USU class of 2007 alumnus, 
conducts an ultrasound exam on a staff memberat the NSF 
McMurdo Station hospital in Antarctica. Martinez is the
hospital's lead physician and a key member 

of the McMurdo leadership team. (Courtesy photo)
As flight surgeon, Woodard is responsible for the medical care and support of all DoD personnel supporting the USAP operations, including the crews of the ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft of the New York Air National Guard. These specially-modified C-130 aircraft have skis allowing them to land on the ice and snow runways at McMurdo station, the South Pole and other remote sites. Woodard is also the local validating flight surgeon, responsible for the coordination of civilian and military assets to support any medevac missions in Antarctica. Additionally, Woodard also provides routine medical care and acts as aerospace and occupational medicine consultant for the roughly 900 military and civilian personnel at the station.

“I feel that being a USU grad has prepared me for the variety of medical and environmental conditions here. We have the potential to treat everything from diving injuries to altitude sickness to trauma in this very austere location,” Woodard said.

According to Martinez, the biggest asset a medical provider can have in Antarctica is flexibility.

“The weather dictates EVERYTHING so being flexible is a necessary skill lest you lose your mind expecting things to run as they would in an MTF [military treatment facility] or stateside hospital,” he said. “Because of the weather, supply lines are often very long to unreliable, medevac capabilities can be seriously impacted to nonexistent, and the risks of day to day duties that would seem very safe in the States or OCONUS [outside the contiguous United States] base are increased exponentially. Without flexibility and creative thinking you’ll, ironically, be more prone to making mistakes that can put the Station at risk.

The South Pole marker surrounded by the flags of different nations
The ceremonial South Pole is one of three in Antarctica and is primarily used for photo ops.  The other two include the geographic South Pole, which is the axis of the earth, and the magnetic South Pole, which is hundreds of miles from the other two, and is where the magnetic field lines of the Earth's magnetic field point inward.  (Courtesy photo)

“The weather when we (the core team) arrived was what one thinks of when they think of Antarctica -- cold (-40s F), windy (50-60 knots common day to day), and snowing with limited visibility,” said Martinez. “The transition to summer season was pretty amazing to experience; we went from 10 hours of daylight upon arrival to 24-hour daylight within six weeks. The temperatures likewise shifted and are currently in the +20-30 F range,” he said.

“Not to worry; it’ll be back below -40 F before I leave in April/May.”