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Medical Team Gathers for Polar Rescue Flight


PUNTA ARENAS, Chile—The team of medical personnel that will attempt to evacuate and deliver a replacement for an ailing physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has arrived at the southernmost point in South America.

Betty Carlisle, a medical provider from Washington State who has previous experience as the resident doctor for the ice station, is being rushed to the Pole on the potentially hazardous flight.

rescue team

Rescue team members from left: Nurse Alexis Taber, Dr. Betty Carlisle, and Nurse Betty Erickson

Photograph by Mark Christmas/National Geographic Society


The National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. agency that operates the polar station, says the rescue mission is unprecedented.

A de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft will remain at the Pole for only 10 hours, long enough to refuel the aircraft and allow the crew to rest before evacuating Ronald Shemenski, 59, who has been suffering from gallstones and associated pancreatitis.

"Incredible logistics have gone into this," Carlisle said shortly after arriving at Punta Arenas. "We have been working on this since we found out about Ron's condition and it was recognized that if we did have a window we should get him out."

Flying in Extreme Conditions

The rapid approach of the Antarctic winter makes the rescue mission risky. But Carlisle said she was confident about the safety of the aircraft and the ability of the pilots to operate it in extreme conditions.

Carlisle was tapped to relieve Shemenski because she has over-wintered twice before in Antarctica, including one winter as South Pole physician, and because she is available to go at short notice. An incoming doctor usually has an overlapping stay with the outgoing doctor to learn the ropes.

Carlisle said she was "kind of excited" to be going back to the Pole, even if it did mean flying during the "closed" time of the year. Flights to the South Pole station normally operate only during the Antarctic summer, when temperatures are higher and there is adequate light.

"We are extremely fortunate to have secured Dr. Carlisle," said Karl Erb, the director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs. "While it is imperative to get Dr. Shemenski out, it is also essential to get a replacement on site in order to protect the health and safety of the other 49 people spending the winter at Pole station."

Rescue Plans

The NSF said earlier that the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Interior, and NSF officials had concluded that the Twin Otter aircraft offered the best chance of getting to and from the Pole in the near-dark with temperatures around minus 75°C (minus 103°F).

According to the NSF's rescue plan, two de Havilland Twin Otters from Canada are scheduled to arrive at Punta Arenas Wednesday evening. From there, they will fly to Britain's Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

"When weather conditions permit, one of the planes will then start on a 10-hour flight to the Pole station carrying two pilots, an engineer, a replacement physician and a nurse. The other Twin Otter and its crew will remain at Rothera as backup resources," the NSF said in a statement.

After landing at the Pole, the crew plans to shut down the aircraft and rest for 10 hours before restarting the engines and taking on station physician Shemenski.

Shemenski passed a gallstone last week, which relieved his condition. "After additional ultrasound and blood tests, expert medical advisers in the United States concluded that he was recovering," the NSF said. "However, patients with gallstones who are not treated surgically face a substantial risk of recurrence and potentially dangerous complications."

The Twin Otters are operated by Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Canadian firm that flies for the U.S. Antarctic Program under a contract to Raytheon Polar Service Co., of Englewood, Colorado, NSF's logistics contractor.

Watch National Geographic Today on the National Geographic Channel each weekday night at 7 ET/PT for ongoing coverage of the polar rescue mission.

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