Polar Doc Rescuers Battle Time, Weather

April 17, 2001 -- With an eye on the weather and on the clock, four Canadian pilots are on a mission of mercy to the bottom of the world to rescue an American doctor suffering from a life-threatening pancreas condition at a South Pole research facility.

The rescue mission, comprised of two planes, is en route from Canada to Ecuador in South America for its first refueling stop before embarking for southern Chile, and then on to a British airbase in wintry Antarctica.

Then there is still a 10-hour flight to the South Pole, where Dr. Ronald Shemenski, 59, an American doctor, is suffering from the potentially life-threatening condition at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

Shemenski, the only doctor at the research station, has pancreatitis, a painful medical condition that affects the pancreas and has several detrimental side-effects.

Pancreatitis is normally surgically treated, but given the spartan conditions at the station, experts have advised against surgery.

Shemenski's only chance of survival is the medical rescue team racing against time from Calgary, Canada, and which must overcome the 24-hour nights and brutal cold of the Antarctic winter to make it to the station.

Anytime, Anywhere, World-Wide

Weather is the major hurdle. Last week, three U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo planes that left bases in the United States for the South Pole were forced to turn back.

"You're looking at minus 50 [degrees Celsius] below and any windchill that adds to that, you could be looking at about minus 90," said Technical Sgt. Scott King of Travis Air Force base.

The unyielding weather forced rescue organizers to switch to Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Calgary-based airline company whose motto is "Anywhere, Anytime, World-Wide."

On Monday, Kenn Borek Air Ltd. dispatched two de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft for the long trip to the research base.

The first refueling stopover will be made in Ecuador, after which the crew will fly to Punta Arenas, at the southernmost tip of Chile, refuel again and then head across the Drake Passage to a British scientific base called Rothera, situated on Adelaide Island just off the Antarctic peninsula.

From Rothera, the pilots estimate it will take a good 10 hours to make it to the Amundsen-Scott station, a hazardous journey which will be made by two pilots,an engineer, a nurse and a doctor to replace Shemenski.

The other Twin Otter will stay on at Rothera as a backup.

Flights to the South Pole are usually flown only from early November to late February. The cold and dark Antarctic winter from February to late September.

In October 1999, a U.S. military plane lifted out American Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who had been suffering from breast cancer since July. But that was during the Antarctic spring, rescuers note.

A Potentially Life-Threatening Condition

Pancreatitis can be painful and dangerous. Since it's a condition that affects the pancreas, people suffering from pancreatitis are often unable to metabolize sugar which often leads to dietary and nutritional side effects.

ABCNEWS' Dr. Tim Johnson said pancreatitis can be very painful and he talked about what various treatments Shemenski might be getting while he's waiting to be rescued.

"I assume they are giving him intravenous fluids and antibiotics for any infections that may arise," said Johnson on Good Morning America. "Ultimately the correction must be the removal of gallstones and gall bladder and that is something that can only be done when he is brought back home."

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas gland. It canhappen when a gallstone passes down the bile duct into the openingof the duodenum, where the bile duct and pancreas duct areconnected. The passing irritates the pancreas, although the reasonis not known.

Diane Harder, a friend and former colleague of Shemenski, said she thinks his personality would help him get through the frightening experience.

"In the nine years I worked with him, he was a very compassionate physician and he has a wonderful work ethic," said Harder on Good Morning America. "I'm sure he is handling this well."

Kevin Fleming of ABCNEWS affiliate CFCN and The Associated Press contributed to this report.