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Doctor Recounts South Pole Cancer Ordeal

Jerri Nielsen traveled to the South Pole prepared for winter temperatures that average minus 49°F (-45°C), around-the-clock darkness, and the isolation of the world’s least-populated continent. These trials proved challenge enough for Nielsen—and then she found a cancerous lump in her breast.

Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation

After a divorce and nearly two decades as an emergency room doctor in Ohio, an advertisement for a physician caught Nielsen’s eye. The assignment: to join a team of 41 at the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station.

“I felt a prickling sensation up and down my skin, like the kind of physical excitement a child feels at the sight of a bicycle under the Christmas tree,” writes Nielsen in her new book, Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.

The book profiles Nielsen’s family difficulties and how she hoped this experience would offer her a new perspective on life.

“I believe in geographic cures—they allow you to throw all your cards in the air and see where they land, then pick them back up and deal them again,” writes Nielsen.

Ready for a new “deal,” Nielsen accepted the challenge—unaware that her medical skills would be put to the ultimate test 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) from home.

The idea of keeping people healthy was a thrill for her, not just facing potential lethal cold, she said in an interview Tuesday. “I lived in a cold, black hole with 40 of my best friends. We were in the most remote place on Earth and we were on the end of the supply line.”

As the only physician at the research station, Nielsen’s responsibilities included treating dental emergencies, frostbite, and mental illness.

“The only thing that frightened me was what frightens every doctor in Antarctica, that maybe there would be someone I wouldn’t be able to save,” said Nielsen.

Adventure Turns Extreme

In March 1999, a month after falling temperatures isolated the team for the winter, Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast. She knew the situation was serious once her lymph nodes became swollen. She had no choice but to perform a biopsy on herself.

Practicing first on yams, oranges, and chicken breasts, Nielsen performed the biopsy with the assistance of the team’s welder—using ice as an anesthetic.

Consulting physicians via satellite and e-mail, Nielsen’s worst fears were realized when her oncologist confirmed that the lump was malignant—and there was a 50 percent chance she would die from it.

Rescuers would not be able to safely evacuate her from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station until at least four months later. Nielsen feared the cancer would spread without immediate treatment and she might become too sick to care for her team.

A True Survivor

In an unprecedented flight a month later—when conditions were still not conducive for the plane to land safely—an airdrop brought the drugs Nielsen would need for chemotherapy. Nielsen worked with her fellow “Polies” to mix the chemicals.

Despite the chemotherapy, the lump grew and doctors were concerned the cancer would spread to Nielsen’s brain. “I thought I was going to die,” she said.

She feared for her life because it would be at least eight months before help could arrive. “I have seen life now,” Nielsen remembered writing in her diary. “Thank goodness that my last year was this wonderful.”

Nielsen persevered with the chemotherapy, however, completing several rounds of treatment with the air-dropped drugs.

In a daring rescue mission in October 1999, an Air Force National Guard plane landed in a wind storm with zero visibility and minus 58°F (-50°C)—the temperature at which fuel begins to freeze—to bring Nielsen back to the United States for treatment.

“Originally, I did not want to be rescued...I thought it was unsafe.” said Nielsen. Nielsen was reluctant to leave her post unless another physician replaced her. She also worried it would be dangerous for an aircraft to land in the unfavorable polar winter conditions. Upon leaving the pole, Nielsen was replaced by physician Hugh Cowan.

After surgery, she says there are no signs of cancer.

“I couldn’t have survived without them,” said Nielsen about the pilots and the team that helped save her life.

For more on Jerri Nielsen’s adventures, U.S. viewers can tune in to National Geographic Today on the National Geographic channel at 7 and 10 p.m.

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Polar Oddities
Nielsen observed many weird biological phenomena while in the South Pole. “Hair would grow amazingly fast or not at all,” she writes. “I last shaved my legs in Ohio before I headed to the Ice. Weeks later, I still had no hair on my legs or under my arms, but my fingernails were growing like claws…my toenails were like talons.”

In addition, Nielsen writes that “wounds don’t heal well at the South Pole during the months of perpetual sunlight (although they do better in the wintertime, for some mysterious reason).”