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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 worlds least-populated
continent. These trials proved challenge enough for Nielsenand
then she found a cancerous lump in her breast.
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 worlds least-populated continent. These trials proved challenge enough for Nielsenand then she found a cancerous lump in her breast.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen
After a divorce and nearly two decades as an emergency room doctor in Ohio, an advertisement for a physician caught Nielsens eye. The assignment: to join a team of 41 at the U.S. National Science Foundations 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 Doctors Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.
The book profiles Nielsens family difficulties and how she hoped this experience would offer her a new perspective on life.
I believe in geographic curesthey 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 challengeunaware 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, Nielsens 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 wouldnt 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 teams welderusing ice as an anesthetic.
Consulting physicians via satellite and e-mail, Nielsens worst fears were realized when her oncologist confirmed that the lump was malignantand 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 laterwhen conditions were still not conducive for the plane to land safelyan 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 Nielsens 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 freezeto 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 couldnt have survived without them, said Nielsen about the pilots and the team that helped save her life.
For more on Jerri Nielsens adventures, U.S. viewers can tune in to National Geographic Today on the National Geographic channel at 7 and 10 p.m.