Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jerri FitzGerald, treated self at South Pole

Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, a National Science Foundation physician, at the South Pole in 1999.

Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, a doctor who treated herself for breast cancer for months while stationed at the South Pole in 1999 and then when the weather thawed a bit was flown out in a daring rescue mission, died Tuesday at her home in Southwick, Mass. She was 57. The cause was breast cancer, which had recurred in 2005, her husband, Thomas, said.

Dr. FitzGerald’s ordeal was headline news in 1999. Known then as Dr. Nielsen, her name from her first marriage, she had been through a bitter divorce and was exhausted by long hours at an emergency room in Olean, N.Y., when she spotted a want ad in a medical journal. It offered an opportunity for escape: a doctor was needed at the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole.

Vetted for her ability to handle procedures as varied as trauma surgery and routine dental work, Dr. FitzGerald was accepted for the job and arrived at the pole in early 1999. The dilapidated station was overcrowded because a construction crew was replacing the 25-year-old dome that had been the base for Antarctic research since 1975. There were 41 people there, not the usual 27. Temperatures plunging past 100 degrees below zero, which could turn airplane fuel to jelly, soon made flights in or out impossible.

In late May, Dr. FitzGerald discovered a lump in her right breast. Through her supervisors at the science foundation, she made e-mail contact with Dr. Kathy Miller, an oncologist in Indianapolis. Using e-mail, computer graphics and satellite imaging, Dr. Miller guided Dr. FitzGerald through months of improvised diagnosis and treatment.

Because Dr. FitzGerald was the only person with medical training at the pole, she needed help from her untrained colleagues. A welder who had practiced by poking a needle into a shriveled apple helped Dr. FitzGerald perform a biopsy by aspirating tissue from her breast. A maintenance worker prepared the slides for video transmission and a computer technician synchronized the transmission with a satellite passing overhead.

In the frigid weather, six crates of chemotherapy equipment and other medical supplies were airdropped in. But with the side effects of chemotherapy made worse by the cold, Dr. FitzGerald became weak and disoriented. By October, glimmers of hope came with the first hints of the Antarctic spring. Temperatures that had dropped to minus 118 were now at about minus 60.

On Oct. 15, an LC-130 Hercules jet from the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard equipped with both skis and wheels landed at the pole. Twenty-two minutes later, Dr. FitzGerald was on her way home.

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