South Pole Stroke Victim Arrives in New Zealand

PHOTO: Renee-Nicole Douceur, who suffered an apparent stroke at the South Pole in the dead of winter, landed at a New Zealand airport after an emergency evacuation, Oct. 17, 2011.
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Renee-Nicole Douceur, who suffered an apparent stroke at the South Pole in the dead of winter, landed at a New Zealand airport today after an emergency evacuation.

Douceur, 58, boarded a U.S. Air Force cargo plane that took off from McMurdo in Antarctic today and landed at the Christchurch airport at about 5 a.m. ET.

Douceur and a medical attendant were taken from her Amundsen-Scott research station. After landing, she was taken to a hospital in New Zealand.

"I was worried about ... whether it could do some more serious damage ... or a stroke or who knows what else. ... They kept the plane at very low altitudes so the aircrew knew what to do if there was something that had happened to me," Douceur said after arriving in New Zealand.

Researcher Douceur said the first response she received from officials with the company that operates the site, Raytheon, seemed sympathetic to her plight, despite the highly dangerous flight conditions at this time of year.

"The Denver people had told me, 'We'll get you out as soon as possible, within a couple weeks.' Then, all of a sudden ... it's like, 'Oh no, she's just going to go out on a regular scheduled flight,'" she said.

She was evacuated seven weeks after suffering what might have been a stroke at the research site. Raytheon operates the site for the National Science Foundation and Douceur said she was stunned when the company told her no special flight would be scheduled for her evacuation because of dangerous flight conditions.

"As far as going for medical services, it's just more of a mere convenience than a medical necessity ... and I'm saying a person who had a stroke and needs an MRI and every other testing ... is that just a convenience? I don't think so," she said.

Douceur will receive a CAT Scan and MRI Tuesday morning, and then will move on to Johns Hopkins medical center.

Rescuing Douceur from her South Pole station was a controversial effort. Because it is still winter at the pole, with temperatures as low as 58 degrees below zero at last report. In October, less than a month after the equinox, there is constant twilight. Winds can kick snow hundreds of feet into the air, making it dangerous for a plane to land on the ice.

"'Hastily. Quickly. Needs to get out of here.' That has been the theme from all the doctors here," Douceur told "Good Morning America" via telephone Saturday.

A cargo plane designated for her rescue headed from Chile toward the South Pole Friday, but blizzard winds and blinding snow prevented the aircraft from landing safely.

Sub-zero temperatures and storm conditions for months have prevented planes from landing at the National Science Foundation's South Pole research station where Douceur works.

"As I sit here waiting, who knows what is going on inside me. I don't know what is inside me," Douceur of Seabrook, N.H., said, adding that she had impaired speech and vision. "I am very concerned about my health and the possible consequences of staying here."

Dr. Paul Nyquist of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said it was hard to diagnose Douceur from a distance, and without the right equipment.

"If she had a disease that was potentially treatable at this point -- and was stuck in Antarctica undiagnosed and waiting -- that would be a bad thing for her," Nyquist said.

An airlift to New Zealand, which houses the nearest full-service hospitals, might exacerbate her illness, given the uncertain effects of airplane cabin pressure and oxygen levels, he said. Doctors have said that a tumor might be causing her vision and speech problems.

The last risky medical evacuation from the South Pole was that of Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald, a physician who had diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer until she could be flown out in 1999.

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