Wait for ice rescue nearly over

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 13/10/2011

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A sick American woman expects to be rescued from the South Pole tomorrow and flown to Christchurch for medical care.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station winter site manager Renee-Nicole Douceur yesterday told The Press that doctors initially believed she had had a stroke on August 27, and recommended urgent medical evacuation.

The United States Antarctic Programme refused, saying her condition was not urgent and she had to wait until scheduled plane flights began in spring.

Douceur said the first scheduled flight for the season was due to fly to Antarctica from Chile today.

One of the South Pole doctors would accompany her on the journey, along with her partner.

"I suspect I'll be [in Christchurch] at least a couple of days or more if they determine it is not safe for me to fly back to the States."

She said a second medical opinion, received this week from specialists in the US, suggested she could have a brain tumour or something other than a stroke.

It also recommended urgent MRI scans.

She had waited almost seven weeks for rescue, which was frustrating, she said.

"I've always said I know the risks involved in flying a rescue mission and would not want the aircrew to risk their lives just for me."

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

In 2001, Dr Ron Shemenski was evacuated to Chile in late April 2001 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's symptoms included vision and speech problems and difficulty reading.

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

US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, where Douceur lived, had also called for her evacuation.

The family had also complained to Douceur's employers, Raytheon Polar Services and the National Science Foundation, about their lack of empathy.

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

He told her it was safer to wait for favourable weather that normally began in mid-October.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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