PrimeTime: Survival at South Pole

Jerri Nielsen, the doctor whose dramatic rescue from the South Pole after she was stricken with breast cancer made headlines worldwide, plans to return to Antarctica as a physician on a cruise ship.

After undergoing treatment, including a mastectomy, in the United States, Nielsen is apparently cancer-free. She spent the spring chasing tornadoes with a friend throughout Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.

This winter, she is planning to return to Antarctica with her parents and siblings to work as the doctor on a cruise ship.

An Antarctic Adventure

Nielsen was one of 41 pioneers who signed on to brave the harsh conditions of the South Pole for a full year as part of a research team.

At the age of 46, Nielsen was divorced from her husband of 23 years and had spent nearly two decades as a family practice and emergency room physician. She saw an advertisement for a medical doctor needed to join a South Pole research team sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

"I felt a prickling sensation up and down my skin," she recalled in her book Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.

Nielsen took the job. "I believe in geographic cures — they allow you to throw all your cards in the air and see where they land," she wrote, "then pick them back up and deal them again."

Doing a Biopsy on Herself

In March 1999, a month after the station closed for the Antarctic winter, Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast.

"It got bigger, it got harder and more fixed," she recalled. Her first thought, she said, "was that I probably had cancer and that I would probably die at the pole … And that was all right."

Her lymph nodes began to swell, and she knew it could be serious. She e-mailed doctors in the United States, who replied that she needed a biopsy right away. But for the 8 ½-month, pitch-black, dangerously cold Antarctic winter, Nielsen was completely unreachable. There was no way in or out of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Using apples, potatoes and yams for practice, Nielsen trained a welder who helped her perform a biopsy on herself. Since she was both the doctor and the patient, she had to stay conscious; her only anesthetics were ice and a local painkiller.

A maintenance specialist on the team learned from the Internet how to make pathology slides, and a computer wizard hooked up a camera to an old microscope and then to a computer. They were able to send results to doctors in the United States via satellite. Oncologists determined that Nielsen did indeed have breast cancer — and there was at least a 50 percent chance it would kill her.

Without quick and aggressive treatment, the cancer could spread throughout her body. But there were still 4 ½ months left at the Pole before she could get the necessary treatment.

Unprecedented Flights

A month later — in an unprecedented flight, as it was still far too early and cold for a plane to safely fly in the Antarctic — an airdrop brought the drugs Nielsen would need for chemotherapy. She worked with her fellow "Polies" to learn how to mix the chemo.

Despite the chemotherapy, the lump grew and the cancer then spread to her brain. "I thought, 'I have seen life now,'" said Nielsen. "I have lived life to the fullest and thank goodness that my last year of life was this wonderful."

But in a daring rescue mission, a plane ultimately landed in zero visibility and minus 58-degree weather — which is the temperature at which fuel begins to gel — to pluck Nielsen from the South Pole.

"We couldn't see a thing," said Maj. David Koltermann. "It was like flying on the inside of a ping-pong ball."

Despite the blinding whiteness and a fierce wind storm, the Air National Guard plane successfully landed, and Nielsen was brought on board within a few minutes so the plane could take off once again immediately.

Nielsen met her brothers in New Zealand, and then she was brought back to the United States for treatment.

"I owe them my life," says Nielsen of the pilots and the 40 Polies who helped sustain her. "There are still lots of heroes in the world."