Q&A with expedition doctor Katherine Breen

One of the most essential expedition team members is the doctor and SOI is privileged to have Katherine Breen onboard this year’s Antarctic expedition! She may be new to Antarctica, but she’s no stranger to the Polar Regions, having lived in the Canadian Arctic for years and even travelling in the Arctic via traditional Inuit kayak!

Photo provided by Katherine Breen

Katherine and a colleague on the labour and delivery ward at a hospital in Kampala. Photo provided by Katherine Breen


What drew you to work in the Canadian Arctic?

I was working in Kampala, Uganda delivering babies on a labour and delivery ward when it occurred to me that the Canadian Arctic would make an interesting next adventure. I’m drawn to work in places where there is a need, and I know of nowhere in Canada with a greater need for doctors than Nunavut. The remoteness of the Canadian Arctic makes working here as a family physician a unique and exciting experience. From performing minor surgeries, to providing palliative care, to working shifts in the Emergency Room, no two days are alike.


As someone who started off with a bachelor of arts and then later decided to go into medicine, can you tell me a bit about how you made the decision shift your focus and how the transition went?

Prior to university I had several different ideas of what I wanted to do with my life.  However none of these included a career in medicine.  After graduating with a degree with political science and human rights, I took a job working for a small NGO in Kigali, Rwanda. There, I discovered many things about the world of development work, and about myself too. I learned that I loved the intimacy of working with and helping people in need.

I applied and was accepted into the medical school at McMaster University, which has longstanding reputation for attracting nontraditional medical students. I hadn’t written the MCAT or taken a science course since high school, so during my first year, I had some catching up to do. But, I was in good company. A former music teacher, and economist, an anthropologist, and a student of religious studies were just a few of my “less sciencey” classmates.


Will this be your first time visiting Antarctica or have you been before? What are you looking forward to the most?

This will be my first visit to Antarctica. I’m looking forward to seeing one penguin push another penguin into the ocean!


Any tips for expeditioners to stay healthy during the expedition and ward off seasickness?

Photo provided by Katherine Breen

Katherine, along with Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry kayaking near Pangnirtung, NU. Photo provided by Katherine Breen

Wash your hands! Wash them properly! (use alcohol based hand sanitizer or soap and water) and wash them often! Our expedition team members will be living in close quarters and no one wants to end up sick. Hand washing is the most important way to prevent spreading germs.

Almost no one is immune to motion sickness! Aside from having a personal supply of seasickness medication and a positive frame of mind, there are a few things that expeditioners can do to be prepared. Here is a quick review of my seasickness advice.

What is seasickness?

Seasickness is type of motion sickness characterized by a group of unpleasant symptoms that occur while traveling on the water. It is the reaction of your body’s inner ear balance system to the unfamiliar motion of the ship. The first symptom is usually a feeling of fullness in the stomach. You might feel unwell, drowsy, or irritable. You may also have a headache, feel depressed or uninterested in what is going on, or want to be alone. These symptoms can progress to nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.

What should I do to prevent seasickness?

Staying busy and keeping your mind occupied are some basic ways to avoid seasickness. Incorporating physical activity, meditation, and yoga into your day can help equip your body and mind to deal with the stress of sea travel. If you start feeling seasick it is important to reduce other sources of physical, mental, and emotional discomfort. Wear comfortable clothes, and do not get too wet, too hot, or too cold. Stay in a well-ventilated area, and avoid things that caused you nausea in the past.

Where should I look?

Gazing at the distant horizon may prevent symptoms or help you feel better. Avoid close visual tasks.  Don’t read, look at a computer screen, or look through a camera. If you can’t see the horizon, it may be best to close your eyes and rest.

What else can I do?

Eat small amounts of foods and drink fluids frequently to stay hydrated. Take deep breaths try meditating. Know that the sensations of seasickness are temporary and usually disappear quickly as conditions calm or after a period of adjustment.

Are there medicines that can help?

The most commonly recommended medicine for people who want to stay awake while they travel is Scopolimine. It comes in the form of a small patch that is worn behind the ear.  Antihistamines (like Gravol) also work, but may cause drowsiness. Both Gravol and Scopolimine are available over the counter. Ginger is a safe natural remedy with few side effects. It can be taken in the form of tea, candies, lozenges, or pieces of real ginger. All of these medicines should be taken several hours before the expected onset of symptoms.

Photo provided by Katherine Breen

Eric and Sarah and some high school students in Iqaluit working on model kayaks. Photo provided by Katherine Breen


What were some of the highlights of your kayak journey last year, across Baffin Island? And any other big adventures in the works?

Traveling across Baffin Island in a traditional kayak was an incredible experience. It was a real departure from my normal way of life. One particular highlight was jumping into the crystal clear waters of Nettilling Lake. Even though the water was frigidly cold it was a relief to wash away the blood, sweat, and tears that had accumulated during the first few weeks of the journey! The next big adventure includes building more kayaks. Our team is continuing to keep the tradition of kayak building alive in the Canadian Arctic. We’re hoping to continue to hold more kayak building workshops throughout the north. Our most recent workshop was held in Kuujjuaq and produced four excellent qajaqs!


Follow the 2014 Antarctic Expedition!


The Students on Ice Antarctic Expedition is taking place December 26th, 2014 to January 8th, 2015. To learn more and follow the expedition through photos, videos and student journals visit the expedition website and follow journey updates on Facebook and Twitter.


Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.