Telemedicine link with South Pole allows remote knee surgery

In a groundbreaking telemedicine development, doctors in Massachusetts earlier this month helped a physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to surgically repair the damaged knee of a meteorologist spending the winter in Antarctica. Using a “telemedicine” connection operated by Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC) of Centennial, Colo., orthopedic surgeon Bertram Zarins and anesthesiologist Vicki Modest, both of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, helped South Pole physician Dr. Timothy Pollard to suture a damaged tendon in the left knee of RPSC employee Dar Gibson in a two-hour operation July 5 (EDT). Gibson injured his knee in a fall.

RPSC is the National Science Foundation’s logistical support contractor in Antarctica.

The U.S. Antarctic Program has used two-way voice and video links between the U.S. and Antarctica to assist in medical procedures, but this is the first time in the program’s nearly 50-year history that telemedicine has been used for surgery. Doctors are assigned to all three U.S.-operated, year-round stations in Antarctica but the medical facilities there are not designed for surgery.

The operation’s success marks a milestone in efforts to use telecommunications to improve the medical services available to those who must spend the long austral winter at one of the world’s most remote scientific stations. “The health and safety of our people comes first and I’m grateful that the skills of all concerned could be combined so effectively with 21st century technology to meet this challenge,” said Karl Erb, who heads NSF’s Office of Polar Programs. “Our thoughts are with the patient. We wish him a speedy and complete recovery.”

NSF, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, conducts leading-edge research at the pole in a variety of disciplines and is rebuilding the only scientific station there. Because of its location high on the Polar Plateau and at the Earth’s axis, Amundsen-Scott is a world-class astrophysical observatory. It also has some of the world’s cleanest air, making it a natural laboratory for studying environmental chemistry.

The 51 people spending the austral winter (February through November) at the station are unable to leave because extreme cold and darkness prevents aircraft landings. NSF officials judged an evacuation of Gibson as too risky to aircrews. Instead, a panel of physicians in the U.S. explored a variety of options for treating the injury using digital x-rays sent via the telemedicine link and a live video transmission of Gibson’s knee examination.

After consulting with Drs. Zarins and Modest as well as other nationally recognized medical experts from the University of Texas Medical Branch, Johns Hopkins University, and other institutions and with RPSC officials, Gibson received a range of treatment options. He agreed to the surgery judged to be the best option for restoring the maximum mobility to the damaged knee.

Dr. Pollard carried out the operation at approximately 9 p.m. (EDT) July 5, with the help of physician assistant Tom Barale (who monitored the anesthesia) and other station personnel. Gibson is recovering and has begun physical therapy.

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