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Storm delays South Pole pickup of ailing American

A storm delays a cargo plane that will evacuate a sick American engineer from the South Pole, where she apparently suffered a stroke in August.
/ Source: news services

An Antarctic storm stymied efforts to evacuate a sick American engineer from the South Pole Saturday, The Press of New Zealand reported.

A cargo plane is expected to fly from Chile to the United Kingdom's Rothera Base and then go on to the National Science Foundation's South Pole research station to pick up Renee-Nicole Douceur. It is scheduled to take her first to the foundation's McMurdo station in Antarctica and then on to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Douceur, who's from Seabrook, N.H., a coastal town of 9,000 residents 40 miles southeast of Concord, is a manager for research station contractor Raytheon Polar Services Co. She asked for an earlier emergency evacuation after having what doctors believed was a stroke Aug. 27. Doctors she contacted for a second opinion say a tumor may have caused her medical problems, including faulty vision and speech and memory difficulties.

Douceur told NBC News on Saturday that the weather was expected to improve and allow the plane through soon.

"I was hoping that the day would have come a lot earlier than a regularly scheduled flight, but now that the weather conditions have cleared up to allow the plane to come over from Chile ... the plane should be here pretty soon," she said.

It will be the "first time we've seen other human beings here for the last eight months," she said.

She still suffers speech and vision impairments since her stroke, Douceur told NBC News.

"My spirits are high, it's just been a long ordeal and it's time for me to leave," she said.

After initially having half her field of vision vanish, Douceur, 58, 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.

But officials rejected her earlier evacuation request because of bad weather, saying that sending a rescue plane was too dangerous and that her condition wasn't life-threatening.

Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said Tuesday that the decision to evacuate Douceur rested with the National Science Foundation, not Raytheon. The National Science Foundation said it must balance the potential benefit of an evacuation against the possibility of harm for the patient, the flight crew and workers on the ground.

In October 1999, a U.S. Air Force plane flew to the station to rescue 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. She died in 2009 at age 57.

Douceur, who has worked at the South Pole for about a year, told The Associated Press on Tuesday she understands the risks involved in arranging an evacuation. She said she wanted to take advantage of a good weather window.

"There's an opening," she said, "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."