Antarctic Medical Rescue Mission Underway

PHOTO: File photo of McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, taken from Observation Hill, Nov. 2006.
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An Australian medical team is attempting to make its way to Antarctica to help rescue an expedition member from the United States' McMurdo Research Station who is suffering a medical emergency.

The Australian Antarctic Division was asked to assist in the rescue and is providing its A319 Airbus and a medical team to help, the Australian government division said in a statement.

The rescue team had been waiting for a break in the harsh Antarctic weather to make the risky trip. The team's plane left Christchurch, New Zealand this evening and is on its way to McMurdo Station, according to the Australian Antarctic Division.

The U.S.'s National Science Foundation (NSF) is coordinating the operation, but remaining mum on most of the details.

NSF spokeswoman Debbie Wing told ABC News that privacy issues prevent the foundation from revealing the patient's name, gender, age or illness.

"The patient's condition may require treatment beyond what can be provided at the station's medical facility," the NSF said in statement.

The NSF said the patient is currently in stable condition, but the McMurdo medical facility is "equivalent to an urgent-care center in the U.S., and is not equipped for the type of procedure being contemplated."

Wing could not confirm that the patient is American, but said she is assuming that he or she is American.

The Australian team was positioned in Christchurch, New Zealand, and had been waiting for weather and lighting conditions to allow them to make the dangerous trip to the bottom of the world.

Antarctica is in the middle of its six-month winter. It is now dark at McMurdo except for a brief period of twilight at midday, making the flight very risky. Wing predicted that the rescue flight will not happen until the end of this week, weather conditions permitting.

A live webcam positioned at McMurdo showed that it was 30 degrees below zero today. McMurdo is about 2,415 miles south of Christchurch and about 850 miles from the South Pole.

"All nations work together very cooperatively in these sorts of emergency situations in Antarctica to provide support when and as required," Australian Antarctic Division Director Dr. Tony Fleming said in a statement.

This risky rescue will not be the first of its kind.

In October 2011, an American researcher who suffered from a suspected stroke was rescued from the pole by the U.S. Air Force. And in two separate incidents in 2010, New Zealand helped two Americans get out of McMurdo due to illnesses.

The most famous rescue was of Dr. Jerri Nielsen in 1999. Nielsen, the doctor at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, diagnosed herself as having breast cancer after she found a lump. She treated herself with chemotherapy agents delivered by parachute from the U.S. Air Force until she was rescued. She even performed her own biopsy procedure.

After her rescue, she was treated and her cancer went into remission, but it returned in 2005. Nielsen died in 2009 at the age of 57.

ABC News' Joseph Simonetti contributed to this report

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