Jerri NielsenBMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b3163 (Published 04 August 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3163
- Ned Stafford
Not today, thought Jerri Nielsen. It was springtime in Antarctica, 15 October 1999, but the weather at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station looked too dangerous for her rescue plane to land. Snow was blowing. It was near −50°C, below which a plane’s hydraulics could freeze and fuel turn jelly-like. Bad weather had thwarted rescue attempts on the previous two days.
Five months before, Nielsen, 47, a family practice and emergency doctor from Ohio on a one year contract in Antarctica, had discovered a lump in her right breast, the first sign of cancer. Flights had already stopped for the winter, not resuming until early November. She was the only doctor among 41 residents, and her plight was headline news.
By October doctors monitoring from the United States advised evacuation. A US military LC-130 Hercules plane, equipped with snow skis, was dispatched to McMurdo Station at the edge of Antarctica, 850 miles (1370) from the South Pole. As the rescue plane approached Nielsen was bald headed, weak, and disoriented from self administered chemotherapy.
Nielsen took the job in Antarctica hoping for a fresh start after a bitter divorce. Her former husband, also a doctor, received custody …