When I flew down to the South Pole on October 25, 1999, it was to take over as the station physician, a position held the previous season by Dr. Jerri Nielsen. She was well known for having had the unfortunate luck to develop breast cancer after being trapped at the South Pole for the winter. We were all heavily screened, medically and psychologically, before being chosen by the contractor who runs things for the National Science Foundation at the Amundsen-Scott Base, which made the development of Dr. Nielsens disease even more disheartening. My heart went out to Dr. Nielsen, who I never actually met in person, but I took some reassurance in the law of statistical averages, which suggested that the odds of two doctors in a row having serious medical conditions were very remote. The United States Antarctic Program had been operating continuously at the South Pole since 1958, and this was the first time the station physician had any serious problems of his or her own.
However, a few months into my tenure, I had a seemingly innocent slip and fall on the ice that coats everything like a blanket at the South Pole. A nagging backache steadily worsened, but I knew from training and experience that ninety percent of sore backs got better on their own. Then suddenly, weeks later, with one step my back got much worse. Not only was I having severe pain, but now also paralysis and numbness in my left lower leg. This was about the same time into the South Poles austral winter as now. The seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. Complete winter darkness had nearly taken over and the temperatures were regularly dipping below minus fifty degrees Centigrade the cut-off for a safe airplane evacuation. Typically, there is no way on or off The Ice during the prolonged cold and darkness of a South Pole winter.
I still believed my back would improve given time, and the risk to personnel of an airlift out, even at the beginning of winter, was significant. There was also the issue of whether or not a replacement physician could be found in time, and if not, what that meant to my fellow Poleys who would be left behind. I made the best informed decision I could at the time, and decided to tough it out over the winter. Tough it was. My back never got better, and in fact got a lot worse. I was in the worst physical pain of my life for many months, and I was an urgent medevac off of the South Pole on the first available plane the following October, a year after I arrived. One day after leaving Antarctica, I was under the knife of a neurosurgeon in Christchurch, New Zealand. Upon awakening from surgery to rmove the ruptured disc in my low back, I felt relief for the first time since I was injured almost a year earlier.
Now, unbelievably, with odds too high even for a Las Vegas bookmaker to calculate, the current Pole doc, Dr. Shemenski, is ill with pancreatitis and is scheduled to be airlifted out. Pancreatitis and gallstones can be very painful. Add to this the stark isolation, darkness, coldness, low oxygen and low humidity of the desert environment at the South Pole and one is truly adding insult to injury.
Dr. Robert Thompson, who preceded Ronald Shemenski at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, shared his experiences in the coldest and most uninhabited place on Earth with CBSNews.com. Click here to read his Letters from Antarctica.
I had a reporter seriously ask me the other day if I thought the ozone hole over Antarctica was causing the South Pole physicians health to give out. I calmly pointed out that there was no known link between the kinds of problems we Pole docs had experienced and ozone depletion. Furthermore, it would have to be an extremely selective ozone hole to target only a specific job description. Cancer, trauma, and a medical illness are not linked to each other, or any known risk of being at the South Pole.
Thankfully, pain is a fleeting memory, otherwise women would never have more than one child. Without a doubt, the lowest ebb of my life was spent at the South Pole. Still, now that I am doing so much better, and with the perspective of time, I am starting to think I actually enjoyed my stay down at the Pole. The friendships, support, and bonding I experienced with my fellow Poleys can never be duplicated. I have never been surrounded by such a quality group of talented people in my career.
With the perspective of hindsight, I should have left the Pole when I had the chance, if there was indeed a chance. The contractor, their air support, the medical consults, and Dr. Shemenski will make the best decision weighing all the benefits and risks as to whether or not to go ahead with the airlift. Some of the information that factors into this decision can change from day to day. I can say from experience that there was no feeling of helplessness like being the only doctor at the bottom of the world and being injured. The station physician also has to be cognizant of his or her ability to deliver care to the rest of the base, which I fortunately was able to do in spite of my injury. If one is superstitious, then this string of three sick or hurt South Pole physicians can be attributed to a jinx or bad luck. But I do not believe it is a reflection on any faulty policy, decision making, or administration of the polar program. The South Pole is the harshest environment on Earth, and everyone that agrees to winter over there assumes a risk, including for limited resources and help from the outside world. Livin there during the winter is unlike any other place that people inhabit, including the International Space Station. At least from there, you could re-enter the atmosphere, and fall back to the real world virtually any time of the year.
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