Published on July 16, 2018

She has a split life … and it’s very cool

She has a split life … and it’s very cool

It’s a warm spring afternoon, with a hint of summer humidity in the air, and Dr. Kelly Swanson is relaxing comfortably in the lobby at Cape Cod Hospital. The conversation is about the temperature on this day in Antarctica, 9,500 miles away from Hyannis.

“Probably about minus 50,” she said. “It’s the windiest place on the planet and, of course, the coldest. Let me look.” She punched up an app on her phone. “It’s saying minus 47 degrees. Pretty good guess.”

But not surprising. Welcome to Dr. Swanson’s world.

The Cape Cod Hospital hospitalist physician recently returned from McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, where she spent five months as the recreation supervisor for a busy community of about 900 scientists, researchers and support personnel who are part of the National Science Foundation-managed United States Antarctic Program.

Dr. Swanson, who grew up in Portsmouth, R.I., has been on the staff at the Hyannis hospital since 2005. She first visited Antarctica in 2009 on a tourist expedition, where she took lots of penguin photographs and kayaked. After a couple more vacations to the frigid bottom of the earth, she decided it made more sense to work there than to pay to visit.

The National Science Foundation contracts for all the logistical support (food services, garbage handling, recreation, recycling, etc.) at McMurdo Station. Dr. Swanson applied for a job and has been living her split life for six years. Her position at the hospital allows her to trade in a doctor’s lab coat for a down jacket (or two) down under. She follows the sun, leaving Cape Cod in October, when things slow down, and returning in March in time for the busy season. Summer near the South Pole in the Southern Hemisphere includes four months of 24 hours of daylight in Antarctica.

Lifestyle That Suits Her

There aren’t a lot of dark days in Swanson’s very cool life, but still, she admits it’s not for everyone.

“It’s a lifestyle that suits me,” she said. “Some people go once for the experience, but don’t go back. Those who return year after year, you have to be fairly easy going. To be an adult and told you’re living in a dorm with roommates, you won’t last long if you’re not flexible and adaptable.

“I do it because I can,” said Dr. Swanson. “It’s nice to see the world. It really is an amazing environment. The continent itself is the last place in the world that’s well preserved. And the science research there is very important. They’re doing a lot of good work. People might not realize it, but it impacts their lives. To be a small part is rewarding.

“I also enjoy being at the hospital and I’m a known entity here for them during the busier months. They don’t have to go out and hire someone. I think it’s worked out to be a very good arrangement for both of us.”

In Antarctica, Dr. Swanson works six days a week, about 54-60 hours. She has an assistant and dozens of volunteers to help plan and organize activities ranging from yoga to distance running, hiking, biking, billiards, volleyball, weight training and softball. New Zealand has a research base about three miles from the U.S. McMurdo Station and their personnel are often included. There is also an inter-station Governor General’s Cup competition between the nations.

“A lot of the work is hard and tiring, and the days are long,” Dr. Swanson said. “You’re inside a lot. Physical and emotional wellness is important. We also have a crafts room, musical programs and a library so there are other things, too.”

However, technology isn’t high on the list. There’s a small movie theater, but no regular television, limited internet access and no cell phone reception. People actually spend time talking with talk each other and group dinners include conversation.

“It’s a supportive, nurturing environment,” said Dr. Swanson, who enjoys spending her day off hiking and exploring ice caves formed by glacial shifts.

A Team Approach

Her duties as a hospital doctor and responsibilities supervising recreation for a town of 900 don’t have a lot in common, except for the ability to multitask and work in a fast-paced environment.

“It’s a team approach in both places,” she said. “You’re trying to keep everything organized and have everyone in place at the right time to make it work. You do what you have to do to get the job done.

“As far as being a doctor, I have a good knowledge of anatomy and things like that. Because of where we are down there, we don’t want people to injure themselves. If the weather is bad, you might be delayed for days getting medi-vacced out. We’re very careful with the activities and super safety conscious.”

Dr. Swanson is allowed to pack only 85 pounds, which includes all her clothing and personal items. That doesn’t leave much room for extra comforts, but she does allow herself the indulgence of Craisins snacks.

“It’s a New England thing,” she said of the dried cranberry treat.

“It’s hard to miss some of the comforts of home (seltzer water, yogurt) and it’s nice to sleep in your own bed when you get back. But then after a few days, it’s like, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I’m ready to go again right now.”

The transition to “real life” at Cape Cod Hospital doesn’t take long, she said.

“Literally, only a couple of hours and I feel like I haven’t left. You see the same nurses and secretaries and some don’t even realize I’ve been gone. They just think maybe I was down in the ER.”

So what is next for Dr. Swanson? For now, summer on Cape Cod is heating up and hospital rounds will keep her busy. She hopes to return to Antarctica, but will “take it one step at a time,” and wait for the cold, cool world to beckon again.