Obama singles out Kiwi doctor for praise

A Kiwi doctor's work in one of Earth's most hostile places has earnt him praise direct from the White House.

Hamish Wright was involved in a medical evacuation at the height of winter solstice at the South Pole. 

His contribution towards saving the lives of two Americans at the station resulted in a thank you letter from Barack Obama.

Mr Wright says life at the South Pole is good for picking up hobbies.

"I did some photography, we learnt how to do welding, you read books and we watched Fast and the Furious 1 through 7 several times over."

The 30-year-old was the only doctor at America's South Pole research station for almost 10 months.

"Nine of those months is cut off from the outside world, no mail no television, no nothing other than a little bit of limited internet, no fresh fruit or veggies and six months of that was darkness."

He says the biggest challenges stem from living in close confines with other people for such a long time.

"Interpersonally, there's a lot of friction due to the environment.

"You've got a very confined physical space and outside there's nothing to do except wander around and look at the sky."

Right in the middle of winter, a worker at the station developed what Mr Wright describes as a "life-threatening medical condition" - he can't reveal more due to medical privacy.

"We managed to get them better and stablised over the course of a couple of weeks but they weren't well enough to stay there for the duration of the season."

They made the call for a medical evacuation, a multinational operation at huge cost, that would take 12 days.

That's because the only plane capable of operating in extremely low temperatures is a Twin Otter based in Calgary, Canada, 16,000 kilometres away.

"They come in and land on skis then have to park on bamboo mats because the friction of the skis warms up the ice, and if they park on the ground they freeze solid to the ground and can't leave again."

The plane landed three days after the winter solstice which meant conditions were harsh and dark.

The machines grooming the runway had to do it in chunks, reheating them in between.

Then the runway had to be lit so the pilots could see it from a few kilometres away, so 55-gallon drums were filled with jet fuel, but they couldn't be ignited on their own.

"Jet fuel at minus 60 degrees is too cold to light, so you put petrol with it, but that's still too cold to light so you have to add some floating wood and light it with an oxygen-sealing torch which itself has to be warmed then that will burn for several hours," Mr Wright says.

His efforts earned him a signed letter from the outgoing president.

"I've got a massive amount of respect for Obama, I think he's a phenomenal individual and American politics aside it is a very special thing to get."

The experiences didn't end there, the Aurora Australis at its most magnificent in the middle of an Antarctic winter, became routine viewing.

"Sometimes you wanted to take photos of the stars and you couldn't because there were too many auroras in the way."

Dr Wright's self-taught time lapse photography was recognised with a prize from the New Zealand Geographic magazine, because why stop at a letter from President Obama?