Stroke victim denied evacuation

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 05/10/2011

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Desperate pleas to urgently evacuate an ill worker from the South Pole have reached the United States Senate after the US Antarctic Programme refused.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station winter site manager Renee-Nicole Douceur told The Press from Antarctica yesterday that she had a stroke on August 27 and her doctor recommended medical evacuation as soon as possible to prevent further injury.

However, the US Antarctic Programme refused, saying her condition was not urgent and she would have to wait until warmer weather, when scheduled flights could restart in the middle of this month.

Douceur, 58, said the delays were frustrating, and she believed they were motivated by money.

"I'm at the mercy of big business and big government," she said.

"Obviously it is to do with the weather and it's very harsh down here. The challenge is once you know you had a person here who had a severe injury, why are you not mobilising resources so they are on standby for when the weather allows a flight?"

She said other urgent medical evacuations from the South Pole had been done outside normal flying months by planes capable of tolerating extreme cold.

In late August 2001, Dr Ron Shemenski was evacuated to Chile after he was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening pancreatitis.

South Pole doctor Jerri Nielson was airlifted in mid-October 1999 after treating herself for breast cancer over winter. She died in 2009.

Douceur said she would be airlifted on a scheduled flight on October 17 but believed she could have been evacuated far sooner.

She was preparing for an emergency medical drop of supplies for another sick worker on the day she became unwell.

"That Saturday afternoon, suddenly I couldn't see half the computer screen."

Her speech became jumbled and she struggled with speed-reading.

While it appeared she had had a stroke, a diagnosis would be impossible until she had a brain scan at a hospital.

Her family have set up a Facebook page to call for her urgent evacuation and an online petition to the White House.

Her daughter, Sydney Raines, wrote to her mother's employers, Raytheon Polar Services and the National Science Foundation, complaining about their lack of empathy.

She said she would be "utterly crushed" if her mother was permanently debilitated because they failed to act.

"I am trying to figure out by what standard you consider a stroke a non-emergency."

US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, had contacted the foundation to push for Douceur's evacuation.

US Antarctic Programme head Karl Erb wrote to Raines, saying emergency medical evacuations under harsh winter conditions posed "significant risk to the lives of the patient and all of the personnel involved".

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He said it was safer to wait for favourable conditions that normally began in mid-October.

By then, she would be taken to McMurdo Station and on to Christchurch as quickly as possible, he said.

Erb said the decision not to conduct an emergency medical evacuation was not made on the basis of financial costs, but after a "dispassionate weighing of relative risks".

Raytheon Polar Services manager of New Zealand operations Kerry Chuck told The Press yesterday he was aware of the situation with Douceur, which was being handled by the foundation in the US.

"I feel sorry for her, but you've got to consider the risks to fly to the pole," he said.

- The Press

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