Did An Antarctic Move Save A Life?

On a volcanic ridge along the coast of Antarctica, the hiker stands out. On this frozen continent a bowtie is an unlikely accessory to cold weather clothing.

"When the wind blows, it gets pretty brisk," he said.

He does wear sunglasses against Antarctica's strong UV rays and blowing volcanic dust. But who is he?

"I'm the only dentist in Antarctica," said Dr. Fleet Ratliff, a retired dentist from Olympia Wash., who is now treating scientists and support workers in Antarctica.

When he arrived he decided everybody should know him - the bowtie did the trick.

But his real story involves how he got the job, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"Heard an ad on radio," he said. "I'll never forget, the announcer said: 'Who would want to go to Antarctica? Its cold, it's really cold.'"

In Antarctica, the harsh climate and unforgiving landscape have claimed many lives. But it turns out Antarctica saved the life of the dentist with the bowtie.

Because of the remote location and difficult conditions everyone working in Antarctica needs a battery of medical tests. Three years ago, at 63 years of age, Ratliffe was feeling great when his doctor suggested one more test: a colonoscopy.

"And that's where they found there was a problem," he said. "A big problem and I ended up with surgery, and then having to go through chemotherapy."

For years he'd resisted having a colonoscopy. He had no symptoms of his growing cancer.

"I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said.

After a year of treatment and rehab he was clear to go to Antarctica.

"As best as anyone can tell, I'm completely cancer-free at this point," he said. "My take on it is, it's gone. I'm gonna live a normal life."

But is life in Antarctica a normal life?

"This is a normal life. Sitting here in the wind in Antarctica," he laughed. "Doesn't everyone do that?"

There are drawbacks to being here. He missed the birth of his first grandson - though the picture shows a clear resemblance.

And while his family doesn't have him for the four months of the Antarctic summer - at least they do still have him.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.