Life as a doctor on Thule Air Base

Thule Air Base is a strange place, and has since the beginning been surrounded by myth and controversy. The northernmost US Air Force base is located on top of Greenland close to the historical settlement Dundas, which served as base camp for several famous polar explorers  such as Robert E Peary and Matthew Henson as well as Knud Rasmussen who founded a trade station here and named it Thule. The original Thule trade station now serves as the museum building in Qaanaaq. Upon establishment of the Thule Air Base in the 1950s, the original inuit population were forcefully evacuated to the present day village of Qaanaaq, causing ongoing lawsuits for decades until the matter was finally settled by the Danish Supreme Court in 2003.

Thule Air Base
Thule Air Base

In brief, the main purpose of the Thule Air Base is to support the Thule Radar, a part of the BMEWS system to detect a missile attack against the United States.

Around 600 people live on the base, 150 from the US military, the remaining 450 are service personnel, mainly from Denmark and Greenland. The service contract with the Thule Air Base is with the company Greenland Contractors, who hires the doctors (in my case via an Agency). This service contract is currently (2016) in the center of a major controversy.

Thule Air Base
View from Thule Air Base

Two doctors are permanently stationed on the base and one of these needs to have surgical skills. I did not have to use mine. The work itself is mainly duties within general medicine including health certificates and other administrative reports. There were no emergencies the month I was there. The closest was a call from a captain on a Lufthansa flight located right over the North Pole where a patient had abdominal pain. In the end it was decided that emergency landing at the base was not indicated. Though not part of the health care system in Greenland, Thule Air Base doctors and authorities will nevertheless assist with medical evacuations from nearby Qaanaaq if needed.

My office, Thule Air Base
My office, Thule Air Base

As a Doctor you are provided with a car. And you have to pass a driving test at the base. I had a small apartment within the medical building/hospital ward, and we had no admissions during my time there. There is a small convenience store. The Top of the World Club (a bar/restaurant). And a fitness center. I was on Thule Air Base in August. The sun was never down and I covered the windows by plastic foil during the night.

The old huts in Dundas

The scenery is spectacular with approximately 20 km road to drive on outside the base. I visited the Thule Radar. And despite many visits to Greenland, this is the only time I have actually been standing on the Inland Ice. I climbed the iconic Dundas mountain, visited the old Dundas inuit village. And lastly, I visited Alert, the Canadian base only 817 km from the North Pole.

Around Thule Air Base
Around Thule Air Base

Other posts on Greenland:
Doctor in Greenland – the basic facts.
Doctor in Qaanaaq: 24 hours on call.
The doctors visit to Siorapaluk, the northernmost settlement in Greenland.
24 hours working as a doctor in Nanortalik.
Visiting Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world.

A photogallery of my time as a doctor on Thule Air Base is available on flickr.

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