Isolation (Part 15)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on May 02, 2020

Over the next few months we'll all be spending a lot more time indoors trying to limit the spread of COVID-19. We've been in touch with members of the mountain medicine community to ask them for suggestions on how to manage. Here's Heather Reynolds, anaesthetist and expedition doctor, to share her thoughts...

As an anaesthetic trainee I count myself lucky that I can still go to work and retain some aspect of normality during the lockdown period. However, I also live alone in a basement flat, with limited daylight and a small concrete yard outside for a garden. On my days off, it has therefore been crucial for me to find a way to keep healthy and happy, in order to recharge from some intense shifts in theatre and ITU.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time away on expeditions round the world – from the Amazon jungle to the Andes and from the Sahara desert to the Serengeti – and looking back at how we coped and thrived in these remote areas with limited resources has been really helpful and reassuring for me during the isolation period.

Time alone in the Sahara

In general, expedition life for me has been very structured and full of routine, which helps not only to get things done, but to keep us sane in an otherwise isolated environment, with limited or no communication with the outside world. The days begin with a set wake-up time, and tends to revolve around meals. These become a vital part of the day, in terms of preparation, providing nutrition and a time for groups to socialise and bond. In the jungle, we would collect firewood and light a fire before cooking anything or heating water, and this alone could occupy an hour or two. We would then take it in turns to cook meals, using the very limited rations that we had carried with us. In Belize, our daily meals were:

Breakfast - Gruel (with milk powder and / or sugar if we had enough)

Lunch - crackers with tinned mackerel, refried beans and salsa for when we were on the go, or instant noodles with tinned vegetables and tuna if we had time to light a fire.

Dinner - rice or pasta with tinned vegetables and corned beef or spam.

A recreated mackerel Belizean-style jungle lunch during lockdown period!

This is all we ate for 6 weeks on the trot! Variety of food becomes less important, and you grow to love, depend on, and loathe the meals all at once. You become thankful for any food you’ve got and if you happen across a pineapple or some nuts in the jungle, this brightens up the day for everybody. If you run out of something (like pasta), you find an alternative carbohydrate and adapt your meals and stay thankful that you have something to eat.

When you are isolating and not spending your day in company, it would become easy to neglect grooming and even hygiene. On expedition we would often have no access to showers, wash facilities or mirrors for weeks on end. What we did have were wonderful streams, waterfalls and rivers – and I would always encourage my expedition buddies to have a daily routine of finding a water source and immersing themselves in it. Not only was this important to keep clean, but it again provides some routine to the day and boosts your morale and feelings of self-worth because you have taken the time to look after yourself.

Washing hair in the wild!

During the lockdown period, we still have the luxury of a daily exercise. I have been sticking to this as a rule, even on long days at work, and have found myself exercising more than I normally would and feeling far healthier as a result! Generally on expedition we were spending most of the day trekking or exercising in some way, and this provided an occupation and a challenge for the day and kept us healthy physically and mentally. I have found the same now; there is a danger of putting on weight when kept indoors and comfort-eating during lockdown. Limiting food shops to weekly and therefore having to plan and ration meals has helped me with this. By ensuring that you get outside and challenge yourself to a decent amount of exercise, it not only keeps you physically and mentally healthy, but also creates the chance to say hello and smile at other people taking their exercise, and provides just a little bit more social interaction and happiness in these isolated times.

Enjoying time alone in Tanzania

Finally, socialising. The key difference between my expedition work and the lockdown now, is that most of the expeditions were done with groups of people rather than alone. However, these are often people who you may not be close to initially, or you may have to distance yourself somewhat because you are there in a professional capacity (leader or medic), and this can end up leaving you still feeling quite isolated. To cope with this, I think it is important to set aside both time talking with other people (whether this is sitting round the fire, playing cards, cooking) and also time for yourself to relax and recharge. I enjoy taking myself off and either lying down (depending on how many ants are around) to look at the stars or listening to the insects in the trees. In comparison, during lockdown, if you live alone then still take the time away from work or chores to just sit by yourself and enjoy some quiet time to reflect. This could be looking at the stars outside, reading a book, doing some gardening or listening to some music. If you live in a group or with other people, give yourself some alone-time too. I am very grateful that I have had friends and family who I have been able to speak to on a daily basis, to provide my social life during lockdown, as well as days at work. I would encourage everyone to keep in touch with friends, colleagues and family and make an extra effort for those who are living alone at the moment, because it may mean an awful lot to them just to know that there are people to talk to in these difficult times.

A night alone in the Belize jungle with only a belt kit!

Overall, I am glad that I have the experience of living in isolation and in challenging environments on expedition, which I think can really help with living in lockdown. There are several positives which have come out of it for me so far, including connecting better with friends, enjoying more time by myself to re-boot, and feeling physically healthier!

For anyone who still longs to be elsewhere, I like this BBC site with live webcams round the world, including inside the Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa, watching the Northern Lights in Canada and life on a Thai beach!

Thanks Heather!

Part 16 of "Isolation" can be found here.

Please get in touch if you'd like to take part in other "Isolation" posts! 

Stay safe.

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