Jerri Nielsen: Surviving the Last Place on Earth

There may be no place on Earth less visited by humans than the South Pole. Despite a permanent research base with buildings clustered about the pole and active scientific programs, comparatively few people have made the arduous journey there. From October to February, up to 200 people may be stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the Antarctic summer, and tourists checking an item off their bucket lists come and go. But by March, when the sun dips below the horizon for the next six months, almost everyone has cleared out, except for a couple of dozen “winter-overs” who settle in to maintain the station, carry on research, and survive the worst weather Mother Nature brews up anywhere on the planet.

To be a winter-over means accepting the fact that whatever happens, once that last plane leaves, you’re on your own for eight months. Such isolation and self-reliance require special people, and Dr. Jerri Nielsen was one who took the challenge. But as she and the other winter-overs watched the last plane leave the Pole in 1998 and prepared for the ritual first-night screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, she had no way of knowing what she would have to do to survive the cancer that was even then growing inside her.

The Only Doctor in the World

Dr. Jerri Lynn Nielsen. Source: National Science Foundation

Hired for a one-year stint on the medical staff of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Nielsen knew that things wouldn’t be easy. Even during the brief summer when planes come and go regularly, moving people and supplies is an ordeal, and everything that needs to be done to prepare for the long night of winter needs to be tended to carefully. Nielsen threw herself into the work, using the challenge as a way to move on from a painful divorce.

The medical department of the station, while well equipped, is obviously limited. While the clinic has been upgraded since Dr. Nielsen’s stint, advanced diagnostics like MRI scanners are still not feasible, and physicians have to rely on simpler tools like X-rays and simple blood tests. Dr. Nielsen’s background as an ER doctor positioned her well for the challenge, but even the most austere hospital anywhere else in the world is likely to have at least one other doctor to consult with, and some sort of staff to assist. Not at the Pole — Nielsen was the one and only doctor on base, charged with caring for every aspect of the health and well-being of the winter-over crew. Nielsen had no way of knowing that within a few month, she’d be one of her own patients.

The hospital at the bottom of the Earth, c. 2013. Source: Jeffrey Donenfeld

In June, she felt a lump in her breast. With no one else to turn to on staff, she reached out to physicians in the US via email, describing her findings. The nature of the lump had to be determined, and without the specialized X-ray gear needed for a mammogram, Dr. Nielsen would have to perform a biopsy on herself. She briefed some of her overwinter colleagues on the procedure so they could assist, but in the end, Nielsen had to guide a hypodermic needle through her breast and into the lump to aspirate enough cells for examination. This is difficult enough to perform on another person, but nearly impossible to do to yourself. Add in the anxiety of knowing that you’re probably going to learn that you have cancer, and it’s a wonder that Nielsen was able to perform the delicate procedure at all.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Despite the challenges, Nielsen managed to get enough material to biopsy, and after more consultations with pathologists back home, she prepared slides of the cells. Pathologists have fully equipped labs with a wide range of cell preparations at their disposal that let them analyze the morphology of cells and make a diagnosis; Jerri only had a few simple stains to use. Worse, she was not a trained pathologist, so the slides she prepared would have to be imaged and sent back to the states for diagnosis. Despite the poor sample preparation and the low-quality images obtained from the jury-rigged microscope, pathologists were able to tell her that the lump was probably cancer.

To have any chance of surviving, Jerri needed to start treatment as soon as possible. The medical clinic at the South Pole is not equipped to handle oncology cases, and under ideal circumstances she would have been evacuated. But circumstances are never ideal at the Pole, and in midwinter, rescue is unthinkable. With temperatures around -75C (-100F), ground travel to bases on the coast is suicide, and planes that try to land stand a real chance of never taking off again when their landing skis freeze to the runway or their fuel turns to jelly.

But airdrops are possible, and Jerri’s support team quickly put together a bundle of supplies for her. They wanted better images, so a better cell staining kit was added, as was a Siemens ultrasound machine for direct imaging of the tumor. Six bundles of supplies were pushed out the cargo door of a military transport into the frigid Antarctic night, but only five survived the drop. One parachute failed to deploy, and in a stroke of horrendous luck, it was the ultrasound machine that was destroyed.

Jerri soldiered on, and with better images from a second biopsy, she and her support team confirmed the initial diagnosis of cancer. With no way to perform a mastectomy on herself, she started chemotherapy and hormone treatment using drugs that were included in her care package. Again she had to train her colleagues to help, but between July and October, when rescue was finally an option, she managed to not only treat herself and deal with the ravaging side-effects of chemo, but still saw to the medical needs of everyone else, including a colleague with a hip injury bad enough to be evacuated with her.

Dr. Nielsen returned to the US and went through multiple rounds of treatments and surgeries, including a mastectomy. Her treatment put her into remission, and she wrote a book about her experience and traveled the world, even returning to Antarctica. But in 2005 her cancer returned, having metastasized to her bones, liver, and brain. She died in 2009.

When faced with impossible odds, Dr. Nielsen did everything she could with what little she had on hand. She put together an impromptu medical team from people with minimal training, devised a treatment plan, improvised tools, and leveraged the limited technology available to her to get the job done. With a little luck and a lot of courage and skill, she survived the last place on Earth, at least for a while.

45 thoughts on “Jerri Nielsen: Surviving the Last Place on Earth

    1. Both wrong for obvious boring reasons. The least visited spots are inhospitable AND boring. Any random spot on the Antarctic is likely less visited than the South pole. Any random spot on the ocean floor than the deepest trenches.

  1. It’s a sad story, but really shows how things have changed. Early Antarctic explorers lived in primitive conditions. The environment was the real danger. Now they can live through the winter, in relative comfort. But the same isolation. No matter how well equipped and manned, there’s always something that could come up. Many a small town would have similar problems, too small a population to keep everything at hand, but less isolation, at least these days.

    Shackleton’s party was not prepared to be stuck in the ice. The explorers had the clothing (though I imagine my good parka I better than what they had), but the shop’s crew didn’t, since they expected to be gone before winter, and were not prepared for open ice.

    Byrd spent most of a winter, about 1933, alone near the South Pole, and nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He survived by not using the stove much, which didn’t leave much warmth. His primitive hut was nothing compared to the housing down there nowadays.

    Michael

  2. OLD stody, but a goodie in almost all respects, so I’ll give it a pass. Were I EVER stranded, I’d want a Hacker with me. Some Seals ain’t so bad… 😉

    If you have Hackers’ Hall of Fame, I nominate Dr Jerri Nielsen. No doubt she is with her fellow ‘ologists… and tbe Ultimate Hacket, Who make THIS ALL… outta’ nuttin.

  3. I was told a few decades ago about a person who had “wintered over” a couple times and didn’t seem to mind.
    But the prevailing thought at the time was that anyone who liked to “winter over” must be crazy. After said individual
    hid himself so as to miss the last plane out, the following Spring, he was forcibly removed.

    I was also told of the 300 Degree (F) Club; one spends time in the 200 degree (F) sauna, then runs (nekked) in 100 below temperature to a pole (100 meters away?) and back.

  4. “To be a winter-over means accepting the fact that whatever happens, once that last plane leaves, you’re on your own for eight months.”

    Change that to space, and start over. Also I bet they get some good benefits.

      1. Think… maybe we will do it once. Though maybe of few times and never again at least for a while. Then wait and see what comes out 25 years later or more regarding what else Discoverer was doing… like Corona.

        Maybe like what do we have out in space by NASA, JPL and the NSA, or is it Jack Parsons Lab or Jet Propulsion Laboratories or No Such Agency or National Security Agency or really just the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Act of 1947 et.al.?

        I wonder like flight and vehicle simulators not being so well disclosed until later for consumer gaming. Are first person FOV/POV shoot em up games human simulators we don’t know about and the other agencies just working on the lowest signal intensity to blend into ambient conditions including noise remote control of anything… especially living?

          1. Takes a lot of reading into the agencies, legislative or executive acts that formed them and their non-official disclosures to the public to comprehend. Get’s intense man when you’re cutting edge technology in an R&D group… then strange cover ups if that tech can’t be disclosed to the public or applied in a consumer way to be disclosed in another way.

            Say like MRI/NMR/ESR zero or earth field.

            Think if you’re in a DC to ELF/VLF lab with highly sensitive wireless equipment… and you’re like man… where is that noise source coming from. Oh, those are human body signals from our EEG’s, ECG’s and EMG’s. Then who knows what already didn’t want you to know that and was watching you all along with that range of remote sensing technology. Pissed you won’t sign up with them and want to be Christian (John 14:6 Pro-life and Pro-truth) NGO.

      2. Seems like assisted suicide to me and why in the Netherlands that team formation was required.

        Technically, you’d want to have robot RC or AI controlled infrastructure (mines, refineries, farming and manufacturing shops) to construct all the required goods and perform services so when a person or team lands on Mars… everything is there already to build or have built the return craft as well as survive with risk mitigation and contingency planning all taken care of

        That would be real and like not “Pan Troglodyte” or “dogs” in space with the Discoverer or related programs to blow hot air up our you know what hole for reconnaissance and surveillance DOD funded blank check hack-a-thon with billions in escrow (read up on the NRO).

  5. Not to detract from the post, but I wanted to chime in and say in the past few years Antarctica now receives a few winter flights during the Winter. My Brother wintered-over last year, and the ended up getting “regular” mail deliveries and re-supply flights. But that was at McMurdo. I doubt anyone stranded at the South Pole gets anything they didn’t have when the sun set.

    1. It was told in the article, that airdrops (supply) are possible, but landing a plane is too dangerous. Of course I see it not impossible to construct or specially modify a plane to survive this kind of conditions. Extra heaters for the fuel to keep it liquid and some precautions to keep the landing gear from freezing to the ground (if this is a real danger) or a procedure to break it loose before take off. I also expected that it must be possible to land a plane for a very short time to bring a person on board while engines on idle and take off immediately. I mean you can prepare everything in advance, so this should only take a few minutes.

      1. Planes like DC3s are mod’d for winter Alaskan use. Teflon skis. A ground crew rushes to attach external generators and oil circulation heaters. Fuel? I think the oil circulates through the tank. Heated blankets for wings. They barely manage with a dedicated ground crew rushing with special equipment. ANY several minutes lost and takeoff cannot be achieved. Nothing is impossible – but plainly they have not deemed it effort worthy. We do not pre-prep for rescue. We react, maybe… somewhat, and pat ourselves on the back… possibly bathospheres, excepted.

  6. Rex, exploring is a disease. like being an ___ junkie or drinking ___ american beer or having sex or crossing the street to look into a window.or HaD’ing with high voltage or turbo-jets. That sometimes it is fatal, is a variable constant. Those who climb tbe highest mountains or dive deeply accept that they might die sooner, than later, maybe. Like the song: “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing.” Some want to restrict guns to live longer while others want more of them around to live longer. The queen visited Wyoming and her guards were nervous that every truck had a gunrack. Some say, she was never so safe. Mars? Meh. Boring. But they see, half full. Each to their own vice. We, are here… And we, are SMOKIN’! (Figuratively, well – usually…)

  7. For Antarctica, you would think they can ship mine tunneling technology down there after performing remote sensing seismology studies to see about mining potential or at least infrastructure that can utilize geothermal capabilities of the underground eco-system. Even the underground eco-system can be studied for substantiation to fund the tunneling systems.

    For the longest term can save some energy expenditures and invest into other budget categories for research.

    Hen, maybe even the Navy from various countries can make underwater tunnels to make sub pens for rich hide outs or something to prevent being stranded. I’m surprised more submarines aren’t being utilized like the drug cartels use.

  8. With respect to those who work there, they aren’t self-reliant, self-reliant is often a misused term. Sure they are force to rely on what they brought with like all explorers have done over the ages, but unlike the explorers of old modern day explorer have contact with home. The crew of Apollo 13 relied with their contact with home to help them survive. Individual Independence has been used to manipulaite the masses, when the truth is it’s interdependence that helped humans to exist this long I’m surprised that helicopters haven’t Anarctic conditions.. The skids on a helicopter aren’t likely to melt the surface of the landing zone like the skis of a plane would. Even a dummy like my can immediately can realize how to make helipad that minimize the contact are the skis would have, assuming the helicopter can’t hover while loading personnel. I’m surprised that the station doesn’t have a full on emergency room. Along with all hands of the station being cross trained to operate it. While I understand the environments aren’t comparable, but there a video on YouTube how the US military built an underground station on Greenland during the cold war. Hell humans have shown time and time again they can figure how to do things, but sometimes their collective brains shit themselves, and nothing gets done as it should. There’s no excuse for casualties at Earth based research stations these days. Sad the south Pole stargate cant be use to transport the patient to the Cheyenne Mountain stargate.

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