Lessons from Antarctica

When challenging days turn into weeks and then months during this COVID-19 crisis, we can learn a powerful lesson from explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on how to rally, adapt, and endure as dental professionals.

“Put footstep of courage into stirrup of patience.” – Sir Ernest Shackleton

Jason Tierney

Restless days have turned to sleepless nights. Worrisome weeks morph into mundane months. These months have culminated in a dreary quarter. Now what?

Since March, I’ve been unable to get Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of Endurance off my mind. You might be wondering what an expedition racing to cross Antarctica more than a century ago has to do with Dental Sleep Medicine (DSM). Fair enough.

Shackleton and the crew aboard the aptly named Endurance were attempting to sail to Antarctica and cross the continent on foot. He made an attempt with a different crew a few years earlier. They came within 97 miles of the goal only to turn back because he feared they had insufficient rations to survive the return journey. He could have risked it and continued onward to glory and fame – or death and infamy; just rolled the dice. He didn’t. He took decisive action with the health and wellbeing of his team as the sole focus. Shackleton knew he’d create another chance. And five years later, he did.

Not long into this second journey, the ship became moored in ice in the Weddell Sea. The crew spent days chiseling and picking at the ice in futile attempts to create a floe they could travel through back into open seas. Shackleton realized these efforts were for naught. He ordered them to stop and conserve their resources so they could tap them when the ice broke. Unfortunately, bad quickly became worse and that was rapidly followed by the worst-case scenario. Sound familiar?

The ice shifted and crushed the boat. The men spent the next several days dragging necessities off the sinking Endurance and onto the frozen wasteland. There, they lived for a year. Shackleton ensured they stayed sharp and focused by continually running through drills. This guaranteed procedures and readiness were ingrained in the crew. He required structured maintenance of equipment and supplies. Morale was kept high with special meals, organized soccer matches, and staged plays. All of this was done for months. On the ice. In the dark.

…bad quickly became worse and that was rapidly followed by the worst-case scenario. Sound familiar?More than a year later, the moment came. The ice loosened. The crew put their practice and preparation into action. All 28 boarded 3 lifeboats and sailed the world’s most treacherous seas for a week until they reached Elephant Island. For the first time in more than a year, they were on solid ground, albeit inhospitable, frigid (-20 ºF), and relentlessly battered by sea water. They survived on the shore for some time, eating seals and using their lifeboats as shelter.

Eventually, Shackleton and 5 crew members boarded one of the lifeboats and sailed the treacherous Drake Passage for two weeks toward a whaling station over 650 nautical miles away. They were tortured by freezing cold saltwater sprays, towering waves, and stress – lots and lots of stress.

They finally landed on the island housing the whaling station – on the opposite side of the island. They could have succumbed. Instead, they traversed the frozen mountains, something no human had ever done before. To make a long story a little bit shorter, Shackleton and his team made it to the whaling station and after repeated attempts, they returned to Elephant Island three months later to rescue the other crew members. No one perished. Years later, when they were asked how they were able to survive and remain in good spirits, several of them replied with one word, “Shackleton.”

So, here we are. For readers that have been practicing DSM for any substantial period of time, you know that patience, persistence, critical thinking, and endurance are necessary. Sound leadership is, too. The COVID comeback is no different. Sharpen your skills. Hone your processes. Rally your team. Be attuned to emotional states. Coach to success. Empower. Stay connected, continue learning, prepare, adapt, and endure. And don’t eat seals.

As a “thought provoker” for Dental Sleep Practice,  Jason Tierney joins with Founder and CEO Lisa Moler and Dr. Erin Elliott for their insights on dental sleep medicine and how to rally together as a profession in all aspects of practice life. Check out their ZZZ Pack Podcast. https://dentalsleeppractice.com/zzz-pack-podcast/.

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