Her story made headlines around the world, and was the kind of thing that, if you survived, you wrote a book about that became a made-for-TV movie. Well, Dr. Jerri Nielsen did survive, and she wrote a book, and she got to watch Susan Sarandon play her in the 2002 movie "Icebound."
She survived, that is, until Tuesday, when the cancer she diagnosed and treated while she was stranded at the South Pole in 1999 came back. This time, all the doctors civilization had to offer couldn't get the cancer to go away.
The LA Times story says she died yesterday, just a week short of her third wedding anniversary. Her husband, Thomas FitzGerald, says "she fought bravely, she was able to make the best of what life and circumstance gave her, and she had the most resilience I have ever seen in anyone."
She was the only doctor at the National Science Foundation's South Pole outpost in June, 1999 when she discovered a lump in her breast. With help from doctors back home via the internet, she and staff at the Amundson-Scott station did a biopsy -- surgically extracting tissue samples.
But it was South Pole Winter. They were iced over -- there would be no rescue, no surgery, no hospitalization. This is a place that reaches 80-below-zero; a place called the most hostile on earth. She was on her own for months. In July, in blackout conditions, the U.S. Air Force made an emergency drop of cancer drugs, and she treated herself until the Air National Guard could land a plane in October.
Wikipedia says "there exist no planes that can land in the cold temperatures experienced at the South Pole in the winter. Their skis would risk sticking to the ice, and their fuel and hydraulic lines would rapidly freeze, dooming the craft. The drop was also made dangerous by the total darkness, and by the fact that the machinery that had to be used on the ground to retrieve the packages before they froze was never meant to be used in such cold weather."
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Wikipedia also references another case like it:
"Nielsen's case shares some similarities with that of Dr. Leonid Rogozov, who had to remove his own appendix while spending the winter at Novolazarevskaya research station in 1961. Since this incident, that station is always staffed with two doctors." Sounds like a good idea, for those outposts that are inaccessible for months at a time.
People Magazine documented her plight before the book, before the movie. Here's an excerpt about her rescue, from their November, 1999 story "Prisoner at Earth's End:"
At the ends of the earth, there is no margin for error. Dropping to an altitude of 300 feet in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, Air National Guard Maj. George McAllister, 39, could barely see past the windshield of his LC-130 Hercules cargo plane as he and his 10-man crew made their approach to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, their vision obscured by the blowing snow of the polar winds. Then suddenly they spotted the lights of the camp and swooped in for a bone-jarring touchdown on the crude frozen runway. "That was one of the most dangerous landings I've ever made, what with the wind, cold and awful visibility," McAllister, who has been flying to the South Pole for 11 years, later recalled. "But we were pumped."
Despite the odds, Nielsen was cancer-free after treatment including a mastectomy and chemotherapy once back in the United States. Her story didn't end there, though, because it came back in 2005 and spread to her liver and her bones, and finally her brain.
One writer who has been corresponding with her in the last few months says she collapsed during a speaking engagement in April, and had been continuing on with her motivational speeches and raising money for her scholarship foundation.
She had gone to Antarctica in the first place to get away from it all, reeling, she told friends, from a bitter divorce. And when she was rescued, there was a feeling, her sister-in-law told People magazine, that she mixed feelings -- having found comfort in the solitude there. The People story says:
Contemplating her impending return home, she wrote last month in an e-mail to her friends, "I see myself becoming weaker, then stronger, among the large Ohio trees that defined my childhood. As much as I love the Ice and the Sea, the most comfortable place is under the canopies of Birches and Hickory, of Maples and of great Oaks." She signed off that day, "From knowing the darkness, I have seen the light."
Nielsen was 57.