At the Bottom of the World
In 2008, Heidi Lim was spending
her fifth winter as a Physician Assistant at the South Pole.
How does anyone end up at the bottom of the world?
The history of human endeavors in Antarctica is brief compared to
other epochs of exploration. Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led
the first men to the South Pole in 1911, less than a century ago. Since
then, men have been bravely advancing the human presence down at the
bottom of the world, making the first flight over the South Pole,
building permanent structures allowing them to spend the entire winter
in a dark frozen wasteland, carrying on that pioneering spirit inspired
by those intrepid early visitors who triumphed and perished.
What about the women? In 1969, fifty-eight years after the first men
reached the South Pole, the first women finally set foot there. Six
women, five scientists and one journalist, all stepped off of the ramp
together so that no one woman would be the first. Pam Young, Jean
Pearson, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, Kay Lindsay and Terry Tickhill
made history together—but their visit lasted only a few hours, just long
enough for the obligatory photos and a quick lunch. It wasn't until the
austral summer of 1973 that the first women, biomed techs Donna Muchmore
and Nan Scott, worked at the South Pole Station, for two weeks. Then in
1979, station doctor Michele Raney made history by being the first woman
to spend the winter.
Since then, women have ventured into this previously male-dominated
frontier in increasing numbers. 2005 saw a record number of 24 women
wintering over in a crew of 86; this winter of 2008, we had 12 women out
of 60 crew members.
Although I'm currently the record holder for being the woman with the
most number of winters (five) at South Pole, I'm not here for the record
books. I've found this bizarre and wonderful place to be the closest
thing to "home" that I've had for a while.
My journey to the South Pole began years before I actually set foot
on 90 degrees south latitude. After spending my first 30 years in the
city where I was born, Tucson, then settling into a somewhat
conventional life in Georgia—working in a community hospital, owning a
house, belonging to a gym—I decided to go after my dream of becoming a
migrant worker and living on the road. I no longer felt like being
comfortably rooted in one place, living one routine. Change and
adventure were calling simultaneously.
Fortunately, my profession as a Physician Assistant allowed me to
take temporary short-term contracts in exotic locations. My first
contract took me to a Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, where I
spent a 3-month stint working in the hospital adjacent to the
breathtaking Canyon de Chelly National Park. The experience exposed me
to the unique challenges of providing health care in a remote area and
to a population with a strong traditional culture very different from
the one I grew up with. I found it far more fascinating than the urban
hospital settings I was used to and was soon craving more. As soon as
the Chinle contract was up, I was on a plane bound for Alaska to the
next contract. It was while I was working in Emmonak, a Yupik Eskimo
village with a population of about 800, that the opportunity to work in
an even more remote place came up.
On a whim, I had filled out an online job application for the U.S.
Antarctic Program. I didn't know much about it except that they employed
a few Physician Assistants at the research stations. Months went by
before I received a response—an email with the subject line reading "PA
needed at South Pole!" I responded right away and less than one month
later, in October 2002, I found myself flying with a large group of
Antarctic contract workers heading down for the austral summer season.
My life has never been the same since then.
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