Reprinted courtesy of the San Angelo (TX) Standard-Times and gosanangelo.com.
San Angelo, TX, doctor and DMU alumnus warmly recalls mission to Antarctica.
The temperature wasn’t expected to get above minus 45, and with the wind chill, it felt like minus 75.
One of the harshest terrains on Earth, this was the place Walter Rustmann, D.O.’95, had wanted to go to for a number of years — on duty while serving his country.
To get to the South Pole in Antarctica, it took a three-hour flight from McMurdo Station where Rustmann, a pulmonologist at Shannon Medical Center in San Angelo, TX, and colonel in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, was stationed. The pilot and navigator of the flight needed to be on oxygen during takeoff and landing.
Once off the plane and out in the open, to remove the goggles they wore was to risk frostbite in under a minute.
“That was amazing,” Rustmann said recalling his trip while sitting in his warm, cozy office at Shannon Clinic earlier this year.
“How many people have been to the South Pole? I mean, 0.001 percent of the population of the world. It was an opportunity I will never get to do again,” he said. “I was there [in Antarctica] for six weeks, which was a perfect amount of time.”
It took nearly six years from the time Rustmann, 55, first applied for Operation Deep Freeze, the Air Force missions to Antarctica to support the National Science Foundation and all its scientific endeavors, before he was able to land on the tundra as one of a few doctors serving approximately 1,000 people.
Typically, about 150 doctors from the Air Force apply, and two are selected at a time, he said.
Once he started applying, he wasn’t selected. The second time he applied, he was selected, but he received a call from a close friend who is a chief of surgery in a military base in Iraq telling him he needed help running an intensive care unit in Balad. Rustmann opted to help his friend in Iraq.
A successful third bid to Operation Deep Freeze was canceled as a reserve mission, and an active-duty Air Force doctor went instead. It wasn’t until the fourth time he applied that he would make the long trip to Antarctica, journeying south at the beginning of November and remaining until just before the new year. November and December are summer like in those parts.
Despite being one of a few doctors to the approximately 100 Air Force and 900 civilian personnel at the base, where the youngest was 19 and the oldest was 72, Rustmann said he never found himself overwhelmed.
He figures the best training for his Antarctica expedition was the eight years he spent as a family medicine doctor in a little town of about 1,500 in South Dakota. There the weather would get extremely cold — not nearly as frigid as Antarctica, but he was the only doctor in town, and in case of emergency, the closest hospital was about an hour ambulance ride to Sioux Falls, SD.
While working at the clinic at McMurdo Station, where there were three beds and five exam rooms, Rustmann would see patients with sick calls from 8 a.m. to noon, and then appointments until 5 p.m. After his shift he would take calls into the night if someone was injured. He worked alongside two other doctors.
In the event of an emergency that required a patient to be admitted to a hospital, Rustmann would have to prepare them for a nearly eight-hour flight to the nearest hospital, in New Zealand.
During his stint there, he had to send six patients to New Zealand. Two were evacuated for severe skin infections with a risk of them spreading through their entire bodies. One man was evacuated for severe chest pain and was found to have fluid in his lungs. Another man was sent because he started having delusions and needed to see a psychiatrist. Another person was transported for a blood clot, and another patient was sent for gall bladder disease.
The most common issue Rustmann encountered was the Antarctic crud, a condition with flu-like symptoms that hits most people when they first arrive to Antarctica. Rest and plenty of liquids are the best way to combat the crud, Rustmann said.
Another issue commonplace with newcomers was sleep deprivation, something Rustmann himself battled for the first few days he was there.
Because of the tilt of Earth’s axis, the sun is constantly up during the summer months.
“Trying to go to bed when it’s completely lit up outside is pretty hard,” he said. “As bright as it is here at 2 p.m. is how it was all the time I was there.”
Returning to Texas required another adjustment to his sleep habits, and it took almost five days for Rustmann to get back on a normal clock when he came back in late December.
Because of the sun constantly being up, McMurdo Station bustles around the clock, he said. People would be walking around, socializing at all hours, drinking at one of the three bars, or getting free coffee at the one coffee bar. It wouldn’t be odd to start a hike at 9 p.m.
On Thanksgiving, there was a 5K run — Rustmann said even though he is in good physical condition, he had a hard time running 12-minute miles because of the altitude and cold. At the base, the temperature would get as low as minus 30 degrees, but would reach highs in the 20s.
“On days when the weather was in the 20s, you would see people walking around in shorts out there,” he said.
The opportunity of a lifetime came on the few occasions when Rustmann traveled by plane from McMurdo Station to the South Pole, where supplies and medical checkups were needed for the approximately 60 scientists stationed there. Dressed in about seven layers of clothing, Rustmann took plenty of photos before the cold got to his camera and froze it up.
Spending the little time he did on the United States Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was the highlight of Rustmann’s trip. He said he appreciates the work and sacrifices of the brave men who endured the extreme conditions exploring the South Pole, and he appreciates the fact that only a handful of humans have ever stepped foot on the bottom of the planet.
Rustmann views Operation Deep Freeze as one of his last hurrahs in his 36 years in the Air Force. It was his fifth deployment in the past 10 years as part of his time in the reserve. The other deployments consisted of three trips to Iraq and Afghanistan as a doctor, and one to Romania to train medical forces.
Most likely this summer, just before he turns 56, Rustmann plans on retiring from the Air Force. He credits the military for making him the person he is today.
“I’ve always had this affection for the military and military history. My uncle was a big military buff, and he got me hooked,” he said.
“I had volumes of military books that I’d been reading since the fourth, fifth grade. Other people were having dates, and I didn’t. I went into the military after high school because we didn’t have a lot of money, and my folks said that if you want to go to college then you’re going to have to join the military and use the GI Bill.”
Rustmann served his time, but realizing how much he loved being in the military, he entered the reserves afterward.
“It almost hurts when I think that as of July, I won’t be wearing a uniform. The most noble mission I’ve ever done was taking care of soldiers who were blown up while in Iraq,” he said.
There is one destination Rustmann still has on his bucket list — Africa. He hopes he and his wife, Karen, might make a trip there after he retires.
“I would love to be able to say that I’ve been to all seven continents. All that would be left is Africa,” he said.
“Some people say I’m crazy for wanting to go to some of the places I’ve been, but I think why not? This world has a lot to offer and for us to see.”