South Pole Patient Is Doctor

An ironic twist to the daring medical supply mission to the South Pole this past weekend: The patient who discovered a lump in her breast is the station's doctor, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

An ultrasound machine dropped with other supplies was damaged beyond repair but is not considered critical to her treatment. The doctor will have to treat herself, perform a biopsy, and if necessary, administer anti-cancer drugs.

The woman works for Antarctic Support Services, a company that provides services for the National Science Foundation (NSF) station. She has asked that her identity be kept confidential.

But there's no question the mercy flight to bring medical supplies to an ill woman at the bottom of the world was a success.

Early Sunday, the big jet soared over icebergs large enough to land on and seas vast enough to get lost in, heading toward an unforgiving continent and the woman in trouble.

On board, crew members tended to last-minute details. They scrawled messages on the medical bundles for the woman none of them know: "Best wishes, good luck, Godspeed."

One of the men wrote "something about how they'd like to meet her some day," said Ed Saur, the mission's load master.

As afternoon light gave way to the Antarctic's 24-hour winter darkness, the mission's first test approached on the wings of a massive tanker -- a mid-air refueling, which is tricky under the best of conditions. It was needed to insure the ride home after the South Pole drop. Landing at the Pole is an impossibility during this season.

At one hour from the South Pole and the target zone, it was time for the extreme cold weather gear. The parkas, masks and gloves were especially necessary for the crewmen who pushed the bundles out the door. The temperature was minus-150 degrees, and they were exposed to it for at least 15 minutes.

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So it was parkas and parachutes for the crew in the rear and night-vision goggles on the flight deck, as eyes strained to find the drop zone. The area was marked with burning smudge pots in the shape of the letter "C."

And finally, after some searching, the zone was spotted. The cargo doors were popped open and frigid air rushed in. "5, 4, 3, 2, 1! Green light!" the load master shouted.

And there they went: All six bundles, in two passes as the jet skimmed just 700 feet above the frozen polar plateau. High Fives all around.

"Gentlemen, mission success. Doors are closed. Flaps up. Flaps up," Saur ordered.

The successful mission was a relief for veterans and rookie oad masters alike:

"It feels good," said Sgt. Bob Brown. "It feels real good."

What concerned Sgt. Geraldo Moore II the most? "Falling out! Everybody keeps telling me the chute's no good. You're gonna freeze to death," he responded. "I was scared I was gonna get sucked out of there."

In the end, the right stuff happened. The feared mechanical failures -- a jet crippled by the cold -- did not happen.

"My most difficult mission that I've ever gone on of any air drop I've ever done," said Major Greg Pike, the mission pilot. "This is the most satisfying mission I've ever had."

But even as they posed for the press, the crew's daring dash to the bottom of the world was becoming a footnote. Even they were wondering, what happens now to the mystery woman at the Pole?
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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