Our audiologist Wendy talks about her experience of providing audiology in the Falkland Islands.
I first got involved with audiology services in the Falklands in 2000 when I travelled to the Islands to work in their hospital for 2 weeks.
With a population of just 3,480, The Falkland Islands does not have an Audiologist in full time residence. Patients requiring hearing tests and hearing aids are supported by the GPs and the Speech & Language Therapist. Once a year, an Audiologist visits from the UK for 2 weeks along with an ENT consultant. I have been lucky enough to make the 16-hour flight several times, the last time was over 10 years ago.
8,700 Mile Trip
I have kept in touch with the Speech & Language Therapist (Sue) who asked if I would be the visiting Audiologist again for 2021. I jumped at the chance and was looking forward to meeting Sue, the hospital team and patients again but then, of course, COVID happened. So, instead of taking the 8,700 mile trip, I supported hearing aid users in the South Atlantic remotely from my consulting room in Farnham Common.
Using the latest technology, I was able to take control of the computer in the Falklands to remotely test hearing and program hearing aids, while speaking to the patients via a video call. Sue was with the patients in the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, in the Islands capital, Stanley, to provide remote support, fit the headphones and put batteries into hearing aids.
Sue and I saw around 40 patients across 8 days. Fortunately, the time difference between the UK and The Falklands is only 3 hours in the winter and 4 hours in the summer!
Departing at Midnight
There are 3 main ways to travel to the Falklands; on the Falklands Islands Government airbridge which is a flight from RAF Brize Norton via Ascension Island, a commercial flight via Spain and Chile or by cruise ship. I have always travelled via the airbridge which departs around midnight. The flight consists mainly of soldiers being shipped to their new posting in the Islands and a few civilians, such as visiting specialists like me. The flight stops at Ascension Island for about an hour for a change of crew and a welcome opportunity for passengers to stretch their legs and then onwards to RAF Mount Pleasant, two miles outside of Stanley.
Sue would meet me at the airport in the hospital’s Land Rover Defender – the vehicle of choice for most of the Islands – looking at the picture of the main road from RAF Mount Pleasant to Stanley, you can see why.
Visits usually lasted for 2 weeks and I worked at KEMH during the week seeing patients for hearing tests, hearing aid fitting and advice. The Falklands is made up of hundreds of small islands. The areas outside Stanley are referred to as Camp and there are various small settlements scattered throughout Camp, usually with their own generators and often powered by wind turbines.
Residents of Camp might only travel to Stanley once or twice a year, for example, for hospital appointments, using the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), a fleet of small aircraft that seats around 8 passengers. During my first couple of visits to KEHM, Sue and I packed up our audiology kit, boarded one of the FIGAS planes and took the clinic out to Camp instead of the residents travelling into Stanley – quite an experience!
At weekends, Sue arranged excursions to explore the Islands and see the wildlife – especially the penguins. One of my favourite trips was to Volunteer Point to see the King Penguins and a group of young Gentoo penguins who seemed as fascinated with us as we were with them, creating a semi-circle around us while we took photos.
My last day at KEMH was usually spent ensuring that all patient notes were completed and discussing any procedure changes and new hearing technology to keep Sue updated before heading back to RAF Mount Pleasant for the long journey home. I have had some wonderful experiences and although remote audiology has worked well, I very much look forward to returning again one day.