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Sick scientist waits for South Pole rescue plane

The American scientist at a South Pole research station who has been desperately trying to leave her post since suffering a stroke in late August could be days from rescue.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

The American scientist at the U.S. South Pole research station who has been desperately trying to leave her post since suffering a stroke in late August moved closer to rescue on Friday.

Renee Douceur of New Hampshire told The Associated Press earlier this week that she expected to fly out on a cargo plane once it arrived from the United Kingdom's Rothera Base in Antarctica.

According to the National Science Foundation, two U.S. Antarctic program planes had departed from Chile had landed at Rothera Base on Friday — the first leg in the attempt to get Douceur out, NBC News reported.

If weather permitted — and that's always dicey in Antarctica — the DC-3 planes equipped with skis planned to head to the South Pole station at 8 a.m. Saturday, according to The National Science Foundation. It's part of regularly scheduled cargo flights that are now starting up as conditions improve, said Deborah Wing, spokeswoman with The National Science Foundation.

"I've always thought I was a tough cookie, a calm gal in the face of adversity, but now, that's making me rethink this," Douceur said on Tuesday. "I'm actually kind of jittery ... but I cannot wait any longer."

Douceur, 58, is the station manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co., which has a contract with the National Science Foundation's South Pole research station. She had been asking for an emergency evacuation since Aug. 26, when she had what she and on-site doctors believed was a stroke, but officials denied her request, saying that sending a rescue plane was too dangerous and that her condition wasn't life-threatening.

"Right now, they think there's a weather window, but the problem is that as the weather window opens up at Rothera Base, here at South Pole the weather is going to start to degrade," Douceur said. "There's an opening, but if they don't make that opening then it's probably going to be pushed on to next week before I get a chance."

The National Science Foundation has maintained that it would have been treacherous to deploy a plane earlier, when the South Pole is in constant darkness.

"There have been times when they have been in flight and have had to turn around," Wing said. "This situation is fluid. A lot depends on the weather."

Wing said the cargo planes had made the successfully landing at Rothera at 2:35 p.m. EDT and were on schedule. There was no word yet on what time they would depart to the South Pole, NBC News reported.

Its U.S. Antarctic Program operates four airfields from late winter through the austral summer season. For example, the Pegasus White Ice Runway rests on a 110-foot-thick glaciated shelf with several inches of snow on top, according to OurAmazingPlanet.

'I'm not going to let myself get degraded'
Douceur, who has worked at the South Pole for about a year, said Tuesday that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital she contacted for a second opinion told her that she should have been evacuated weeks ago and that they believe something other than a stroke — possibly a tumor — may be causing her vision, speech and memory problems. She said she's worried about how flying in a non-pressurized plane will affect her but she doesn't want to wait several more weeks until larger, pressurized aircraft arrive.

After initially having half her field of vision vanish, Douceur said she can now read if she concentrates on just a few words at a time. She sometimes jumbles words and has had trouble remembering simple lists of words during medical evaluations. When she struggled to count backward from 100 by various multiples, a doctor suggested she brush up on sixth-grade math, she said.

"Here I am, this highly educated nuclear engineer that took all different advanced math through my college years, and now my doctor's telling me to read a sixth-grade book?" she said. "My intellect has been a key aspect of my entire life, and I'm not going to let myself get degraded to a sixth-grade level."

Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said Tuesday that the decision to evacuate Douceur rested with the National Science Foundation, not Raytheon. In a statement, the company said its medical team at the South Pole is highly experienced in providing all levels of medical care and can consult with peers in the United States through telemedicine.

"During the winter period, extremely cold temperatures and high winds make an extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew, and such an extraction is considered only in life-threatening conditions," the company said.

In a statement, a National Science Foundation spokeswoman said the agency must balance the potential benefit of an evacuation against the possibility of harm for the patient, the flight crew and workers on the ground.

"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," the spokeswoman said.

Agency: Staff aware of risks
In a letter to New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen last month, an NSF official said those who work at the station are fully informed about the hostile climate and extreme conditions. Transportation during the winter months is extremely risky given the low temperature, severe weather, hostile terrain and limited rescue personnel, wrote Kelly Falkner, the agency's deputy director of polar programs.

In October 1999, a U.S. Air Force plane made one of the earliest flights ever into the station when it rescued Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who had diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer for months before her evacuation. After she had multiple surgeries in the United States, the cancer went into remission, but it returned. Nielsen FitzGerald died in 2009 at age 57.

Douceur said she understands the risks involved in arranging an evacuation but is angry that the decision to deny her request was made so quickly.

"This is absolutely wrong," she said. "They are making decisions basically on money."

Douceur is from Seabrook, a coastal New Hampshire town of 9,000 residents about 40 miles southeast of Concord.

NBC's Anne Thompson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.