A sick New Hampshire woman who's been working on the South Pole for a year was evacuated by plane and arrived in New Zealand Monday for treatment.
Renee-Nicole Douceur, 58, of Seabrook., N.H., landed in Christchurch, the closest place with advanced medical services.Speaking by phone, Douceur said on "The Early Show" she's "elated" to be in New Zealand and is feeling great, but is still experiencing visual impairment and difficulty speaking.
She said, "I basically was on a sedative to kind of take the chill out and on the C-17, once I arrived ... and finally got off to Christchurch, I was told they had a special bed for me and I just totally slept the entire flight."
Douceur works as a manager for research station contractor Raytheon Polar Services Co. She asked for an emergency evacuation after having what doctors believed was a stroke in August. Doctors she contacted for a second opinion say a tumor may have caused vision and speech problems she was experiencing.
CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller reported that Douceur's lawyers sent a letter to Raytheon saying, "Ms. Douceur's chances of full recovery are reduced (or perhaps impossible) if she is not moved quickly."
But Raytheon denied her request, disagreeing that her life was in danger.
Flying in and out of the South Pole was a major concern. When Douceur made her request in September, conditions were at their worst. It was the end of winter there, when there's no daylight and subzero temperatures, and chaotic winds make flying a plane practically impossible.
Douceur said she was surprised how far the battle with her company went.
She said. "I had thought originally that, you know, the company and the National Science Foundation would have basically taken care of any individual and not make hasty decisions, even while I was in the clinic with brain swelling. However, I totally do understand about the logistics. I would never have an air crew come in to rescue my life if it would put them at danger. It was just basically, 'Why aren't the company (Raytheon) and the National Science Foundation following their own policies and procedures and muster the resources and put them in place when the doctors are saying, "She needs to get out of here right away."
Douceur's story is similar to that of another South Pole worker. More than a decade ago, Dr. Jerri Nielsen developed breast cancer and was forced to treat herself for months until a rescue plane could fly her out. That evacuation -- back in 1999 -- also happened in October.
Douceur said she could have been taken out sooner -- and in a safer window of time. She told "Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill, "What they have done is, there were windows that have been opened up, but because they didn't bring the planes down from Canada and just waited until the very last point where they just had ... regular scheduled flights, that I was not afforded the opportunity to get quicker treatment and rehabilitation services."
So what's next for Douceur?
She said on "The Early Show," "Today is diagnostic testing, MRI and what other testing going to be done. Those images will be sent to the University Texas Medical Branch folks, as well as the Johns Hopkins Hospital, so that the consultants can take a look at it and make a determination of what has happened and whether it's safe enough for me to now take the next journey across the Pacific Ocean and eventually get across the U.S. to Johns Hopkins."
Freelance journalist Eric Niiler, who's been to the South Pole and has covered this story for Discovery News, said on "The Early Show" Monday that challenge ahead is, indeed, to find out what actually happened to Douceur.
He said, "Did she really have a stroke? Was there damage that, you know, is irreparable. And then, also, thinking down the road, is this going to be a new operating procedure that when folks get sick or so forth that they are brought home? I think that's the bigger question here."
"Early Show" co-anchor Jeff Glor said, "It became a very nasty fight with her accusing her employers here of not caring about her physical well-being, about caring more about money. They went back and forth on that. The company said it was too dangerous to go in. Why did this become such a bitter fight?"
Niiler said, "Well, it's interesting. In the previous evacuations, the med-evacs ... they wanted to stay and this is the first time you had someone fighting to get out and fighting to get home. There is sort of a code and a belief among a lot of the 'Poleys,' as they are called ... is that you signed up for this and that is how it's going to be until the first cargo plane starts arriving when the winter ends. So I don't know. I think there has been a lot of tension. This is a place where you're spending six months in close quarters with a small group of people. It's almost like being on a spaceship. There's no way off, no way home and something has changed here."
To avoid situations like this in the future, particularly with people fighting to leave the continent, Niiler said more screening is needed for people who want to work at the South Pole.
"Folks are selected for a lot of reasons to go to the pole. They are selected for their skills. There is also some psychological training, too, about the kinds of amazing hardships, the solitude that you're going to face. The fact that you are going to have to deal with a small group of people. The little slights that can grow into huge things - leaving the dishes uncleaned or changing the way, you know, the color of a bar, something like this. I mean, there are all kinds of little things that can get out of control in a tight, closed environment. I guess the only thing that could change would be more screening."