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Polar bear attacks and darkness: inside a hospital at the top of the world

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ONGYEARBYEN, Svalbard, Norway — How do you care for a polar bear bite? John Aksel Bilicz knows.

For more than 10 years, Bilicz has been hospital manager and head nurse at Longyearbyen Hospital, the northernmost hospital in the world located just 800 miles from the North Pole on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. He has responded to everything from childbirth to polar bear attacks. His weathered skin reflects the harshness of living here, and a thick Norwegian accent colorfully describes his experiences.

“It’s easy to hurt oneself,” he said. “We have polar bears and sometimes they even come into town, so we have to carry a weapon as ice bear protection.”

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Bilicz still vividly remembers a phone call he got at the hospital in 2009. A man named Sebastian Nilssen had been dragged out of his tent, head-first, by a polar bear.

It took more than two hours to get to Nilssen — Bilicz said the man was “very far north” — but the staff at the hospital was able to treat him and he recovered fully.

The hospital was established after 1906, when American entrepreneur John Longyear set up the Arctic Coal Company, a mining operation for roughly 500 people.

“In the mining laws, it says that if you are running a mine, you must provide for a hospital,” Bilicz said. “You need a surgeon that can take care of accidents.”

The original building was burned by Russia during World War II, and the steps are the only part of the structure that remain, serving as the site of an annual ritual.

The town gathers at those ruins every March to celebrate the return of the sun, which sets for the last time on Oct. 25.

After the war, a new hospital was built and its location moved several times. It is currently a large, yellow, industrial structure in the center of Longyearbyen, whose economy is moving away from coal and toward scientific research and arctic tourism.

In this exclusive STAT video, we take a look at this remote environment and inside the northernmost hospital in the world.

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