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Evacuation is denied for South Pole stroke victim

The South Pole Station in Antarctica, where an over-wintering worker is seeking evacuation for medical reasons. Her request has been turned down.
The South Pole Station in Antarctica, where an over-wintering worker is seeking evacuation for medical reasons. Her request has been turned down.NSF
/ Source: Discovery Channel

The manager of the U.S. South Pole station wants to be evacuated, saying she suffered a stroke more than a month ago. But U.S. polar officials say she'll have to wait until special ski-equipped airplanes can land at the frozen base several weeks from now.

The dispute between site manager Renee-Nicole Douceur, the National Science Foundation and the operator of the base, Raytheon Polar Services, has been simmering since Douceur said she suffered a stroke on Aug. 27. The physician at the U.S.-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station recommended her immediate evacuation. But consulting doctors hired by Raytheon and the NSF disagreed.

Since then, Douceur's family has set up a website to gain support for her cause and enlisted the aid of U.S. Sen. Jean Shaheen, D-N.H. She's also hired an attorney to help her plead her case.

In a phone interview with Discovery News, Douceur said she suffers from blurry vision and is worried about long-term effects to her health. She says she can't wait another few weeks.

"I'm just hanging in there and I'm looking out my window and it's nice and clear bright and sunny," Douceur said. "I'm saying to myself, why isn't there a plane here to get me out of here today or even yesterday?"

Douceur said she worried that she may have had an aneurysm or a blood clot to the brain. The base doesn't have MRI or other scanning equipment to make that diagnosis.

"I have not been treated fairly here," Douceur said. "They have been making decisions based on budgets. Isn't a stroke a serious thing?"

Representatives of the NSF and Raytheon say a medical evacuation over the Antarctic continent is risky and attempted only if there's a life-threatening condition.

In 1999, for example, base doctor Jerri Nielson was airlifted evacuated in mid-October after treating herself for breast cancer over winter. She died in 2009. In August 2001, another base doctor, Ron Shemenski, was evacuated to Chile after he was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening pancreatitis.

NSF officials in Washington said they are checking in daily on Douceur.

"In considering whether to attempt a very risky emergency medical evacuation during the challenging winter season in Antarctica, NSF must always balance the patient's condition with the possibility for injury or the loss of life of the patient, the flight crew and personnel on the ground at South Pole against the potential benefits to the patient," an NSF spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement.

"We are continuing to monitor the patient's condition closely and are prepared to consider alternative courses of action if merited by a change in condition, as determined by medical experts."

There are about 50 workers who are over-wintering at the station, which is located at the bottom of the planet and is three to five hours by air (depending on the aircraft) to McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research facility in Antarctica. From McMurdo, it's another four-hour flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, the closest city with advanced medical facilities.

Some airplanes can make the trip, but extreme cold freezes engines and hydraulic fluids, not to mention the difficulty of landing on an airstrip that can't be cleared of snow and ice.

The South Pole's clear skies and unique location make it a perfect place to study astrophysics, astronomy and atmospheric chemistry. Both scientists receiving government grants and staff workers hired by Raytheon assume a certain amount of risk, U.S. officials say, since conditions in Antarctica are treacherous.

Temperatures at the pole are currently around 58 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of close to minus 87, according to a weather website operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Amundsen-Scott base is equipped with a medical clinic, fuel, food and supplies for the six-month winter-over. But once the last flight leaves in late February, nobody can leave until late October.

Douceur is a 58-year old retired nuclear engineer from Hampton Falls, N.H. She said she has spent several years working in Antarctica managing the two U.S. bases, but was making her first 12-month stay at the South Pole.

She says NSF officials have told her that specially equipped Twin Otter aircraft will be landing at the South Pole on Oct. 13 to refuel, and then continue on to McMurdo. If all goes according to plan, the planes will return and pick her up several days later. She would then be transferred to a larger C-130 Hercules transport for the leg to New Zealand.

Niiler reported for Discovery News from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in January on an NSF Journalism Fellowship.