Dr. Jerri Nielsen waited two months before she told anyone about a lump she discovered in her breast. The South Pole research station where she worked was closed to the outside world for the winter and the next plane wasn’t due for nearly nine months. Finally, she couldn’t wait any longer.
“I GOT really sick,” Nielsen, 51, recalled Wednesday in a telephone interview from Philadelphia. “I had great big lymph nodes under my arm. I thought I would die.”
Nearly four years later, Nielsen is watching as another worker is waiting to be rescued from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, this time to seek medical help for bladder problems that could require surgery.
The rescue of the worker was delayed a fourth day Thursday because of a storm that left visibility at zero and sent temperatures to nearly 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-51 degrees Celsius).
The pilots, who will fly de Havilland Twin Otters, waited 1,346 miles (2,154 kilometers) away at British Rothera Air Station on Antarctica.
No details have been released on the worker’s condition, but officials with Raytheon Polar Services said he is stable and able to walk. His identity has not been released.
When Nielsen discovered the lump in June 1999, she was the only doctor on staff at the station managed by the National Science Foundation.
When she broke the news to the base supervisor, her thoughts were not of being rescued — a long shot as the polar winter set in — but of having some of her colleagues trained to care for her as the cancer advanced.
“I felt sad because I wasn’t going to be able to continue with my life and I’d had the best year of my life,” Nielsen said.
As a captivated world watched, Nielsen treated herself with chemotherapy in coordination with her doctor at the Indiana University Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Medical equipment and supplies were air-dropped to the remote site.
In October 1999, Nielsen was rescued in a daring airlift and returned to Indianapolis for treatment amid intense media attention. She later wrote a book about her ordeal, “Ice Bound,” which CBS made into a movie last April. Today, she is a motivational speaker and writer.
Despite her experience, the South Pole has not lost its hold on Nielsen, who now lives in Bokeelia, Fla. She will return to the Antarctic for the third time later this year to give lectures, and she says the forbidding, desolate continent is irresistible precisely because nothing is there.
“It’s the nothing that’s so beautiful. When you leave the base and go out on the plateau, that’s what is incredible.”
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