From St John Badger to Antarctic doctor.

From a young age Emma Browne knew she wanted to work in medicine. It’s a journey that has taken her from joining St John Guernsey as a Badger at the age of eight, to now working as the ship’s doctor on the state-of-the-art polar research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Emma says her time with St John was an early inspiration. “I used to be quite an inquisitive child and I really enjoyed the variety of badges that you used to work towards. One of my favourite memories was going on a trip around the ambulance station at the Rohais and going into the dive chamber. I remember thinking about the challenges of having to look after someone in such a tiny space and how tight and noisy that would be.”

Little did she know years later she would be dealing with similar challenges, looking after people in the isolated Antarctic environment.

Emma is the first ship’s doctor on the distinctive red hulled vessel which is currently going through sea trials with the crew working alongside engineers from the shipyard, trialing equipment, learning the systems and familiarizing themselves with the boat.

Emma said “As the first doctor, I have the usual role of responding to medical emergencies and routine medical issues, as well as doing medical fitness examination on the seafarers, and providing medical training to the first aid party. Currently there is also that task of mitigating, as much as possible, any risk of getting Covid cases on board.”

“When I arrived on the ship, the surgery equipment had to be checked, sorted and put into place. To make everything sea worthy the ship’s carpenter helped by making frames to keep everything in place, to ensure the medical equipment will not get damaged in rough weather.”

As a teenager Emma loved reading and science, which is where her interest in medicine started to develop. “When I was about 14, my mum gave me a non-fiction book called “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett. Each chapter was about the origins and science around infectious diseases. I also read books about the historic age of Antarctic exploration and about disasters on Everest. It was something that I aspired to, but never thought I would get anywhere near, especially as I really was not a particularly sporty child.”

Another significant influence for Emma was completing her Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions through St John Guernsey Cadets. “I really loved these trips as it was not something my family were in any way interested in, and it was definitely a defining point in my story. I absolutely love being outside, camping and hiking. I’m really grateful to the St John youth team and the people who took us away.”

Later while studying to become a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland Emma rejoined St John as a volunteer, going on duty at sporting event and music festivals, but it was the rural events which reaffirmed her interest in the outdoor adventure. When she went on a Wilderness Medic course in the Wicklow mountains Emma started to started to realise that maybe it was possible to blend the outdoor activities with medicine after all.

Today, as ship’s doctor on the RRS Sir David Attenborough Emma has to ensure the crew and passengers are healthy enough to cope in the harsh Antarctic environment. Due to the remoteness and isolation of the polar landscape, Emma has to be prepared to perform a wide range of skills, many of which would be outside the scope of a normal GP or Emergency Department Consultant.

“Medical backup and evacuation can take days or weeks, so we have lots of equipment that normally would be specialist use only, such as an X-ray machine and dentistry equipment. I’ve had to learn physio skills, how to work in the dive chamber and I’ve spent lots of time in the plastics theatre learning surgery. Before our first deployment with British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit, we get a dispensation to be allowed to have dedicated training in these kinds of skills. There are occasions when you need to use some ingenuity to create the right splint or adapt the treatment based on what resources you have available.”

Before joining RRS Sir David Attenborough Emma spent 3 months on the RRS James Clark Ross travelling to South Georgia (near the Falklands) where she lived for just over a year.

“The island is the most beautiful place in the world, with King penguin colonies and elephant seals that you see on the David Attenborough programmes. I was lucky to have a huge amount of freedom to explore and I work with some amazing people, who often needed a hand to do their work. I have learned everything from driving and servicing boats, inspecting fishing vessels, cleaning out the hydro electric power plant, to weighing and measuring fur seal pups and giant petrel chicks.”

Britain has been a world leader in polar exploration and research for over a century. Today, the work of the British Antarctic Survey in remote regions is seen as crucial in understanding changes in the planet’s oceans, marine life and climate system. The £200million ship is designed break through frozen seas with a thickness of up to 1m and at a speed of 3 knots. The research platform is expected to transform how ship-borne science is conducted in the polar regions and provide scientists with state-of-the-art facilities to research the polar environment.

(Photo credits: 1 – Rich Turner, BAS; 2&3 – Emma Browne; 4 – Dylan Ray)