Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Living on the Edge of the World
by Julie McKenna
While some people go to Antarctica to ski on the pristine blankets of snow, Dr. Jerri Nielsen went there because it was the last true frontier. She would be the only doctor stationed at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the year 1999. For eight-and-a-half months of that year, there would be no travel in, or out due to harsh weather conditions. Since she was a young girl she had always wanted to travel to areas that were still uncharted - Antarctica or even the moon if that's what it took. Now, she finally had her chance to make her dream come true. What she didn't know was that she would develop breast cancer while trapped at the end of the earth. She has documented her amazing story of survival in her new book Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.
Jerri had been working as an ER doctor in Ohio and living with her parents while she was recovering from her divorce after 23 years of marriage and losing her three children in the process. She was ready for a change - a big change. One night after work she saw an ad in a medical journal for a doctor at the South Pole. "I believe in geographic cures," Jerri writes. "They allow you to throw all your cards in the air and see where they land." This was what she had been looking for.
"Antarctica was a blank slate on which you would write your soul."
As with all major decisions in her life, she sat down to discuss it with her family - her mother, father and two brothers. Everyone was excited about the adventure and encouraged her to follow her dreams. Her father, who they lovingly call "Look-Out Cahill" because he is always warning the family to be careful, did mention that it might be dangerous. He even mentioned the fact that as the only doctor there, she might have to operate on herself. But, having warned her of the potential danger, he also encouraged her to go. With her family behind her and her mother's advice on her mind, "Get on with life, have the best one that you can imagine. A life is not just measured in years," Jerri decided to do it. She applied to the Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) in Denver and a few days later was on a plane to Denver for the interview.
During her interview she was given the lowdown on Antarctica that, as Jerri notes, "came across as a warning." The ASA informed her that Antarctica was "the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth." This was confirmed when she asked the human resource office to have survival training before she left. They told her, "You don't get survival training when you're a Polie. If you end up outside in the night, you die." Jerri was sold.
In what seemed like no time, Jerri was at the South Pole after a few stops to collect government issued gear that was specifically made for the Antarctic weather. When she stepped off the plane she was hit with "a cold so deep and complete it was surreal. My first breaths torched my throat and chilled my lungs. It was a cold from another dimension, from an ice planet in a distant galaxy," Jerri had finally made it to her uncharted frontier.
The South Pole crew discovers the sixth box from the emergency
airdrop on July 10, 1999.
(photo by John Penney)
The first few weeks were spent adjusting to life at the Pole, from learning to take a two minute shower only twice a week to closing up cuts with superglue. Jerri was actually looking forward to the last plane of the summer leaving so that she could settle into the winter routine - she had fallen in love with the South Pole. Jerri discovered that "Antarctica was a blank slate on which you would write your soul."
A few weeks after the last plane left, leaving Jerri and her winter crew on their own for eight-and-a-half months, Jerri found a lump in her right breast. She had a mammogram only six months prior that did not indicate anything unusual. After monitoring it for several weeks, Jerri told the rest of the Polies about the lump because it was growing larger. She tried to aspirate the lump thinking that it might be a cyst, but it proved to be solid.
After consulting with a medical team in the United States, Jerri decided to do the unthinkable: perform a biopsy on herself. Jerri gave a crash course in performing a biopsy to the small team of people she chose to help her. Among them was a welder who she had practice on a piece of fruit. As to whether or not she was nervous about performing the biopsy, Jerry simply states, "No. I wasn't."
The next step was to somehow get the slides of the biopsy to the medical team in the United States. Since they were shut off from any contact, they did not have a way to get the slides out of the South Pole. The team of Polies came up with an innovative way to transmit the slides over e-mail. The medical team in the United States received the slides and was able to come to a conclusion. When Jerri got the results, her greatest fear was realized: it was cancer.
Not only was Jerri's life at risk, but so were the lives of everyone else at the Pole who depended on her as their doctor. Taking this into consideration, the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to risk an emergency drop of chemotherapy drugs and other supplies Jerri would need to begin treatments. On July 10, 1999, the Air Force C-141 Starlifter delivered the precious cargo to the South Pole without a major incident. The only mishap was that the ultrasound machine in one of the boxes was smashed on impact.
With the help of her fellow Polies, Jerri began chemotherapy treatments, which made her hair fall out, and she felt like she was "walking neck deep in Jell-O." She switched to the backup chemotherapy drugs after her tumor started growing again. Jerri endured side effects brought on by a combination of chemotherapy and living in the environmental conditions at the Pole. "I couldn't think. I was forgetting everything and getting confused," Jerri recalls. "And I started dropping things with my right hand." It was clear that Jerri needed to get off the Ice and be replaced with another doctor.
The NSF planned to send a rescue plane to collect Jerri and replace her with another doctor. On October 16, 1999, the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard successfully accomplished this seemingly impossible task. They only had three minutes on the ground to get Jerri and drop off the other doctor.
After Jerri came back from the South Pole she had a lumpectomy, which created an infection that ran down her arm and into her chest. She also developed a staph infection and in November 2000 had a mastectomy.
Now as I interview her a few months after her mastectomy, she is thriving. Between appearances' on programs such as Primetime and Oprah, she is doing a book tour across the United States. She is feeling well and is recovering quickly, but jokes about being exhausted from her busy schedule.
Looking back at her experience in the South Pole, Jerri says that cancer is harder on the caregivers than it is on the person with cancer. "The person who has cancer goes through a period of time when she can mourn her illness," Jerri explains to me. "But the people who love her and are caring for her feel helpless a lot of the time. They feel like they can't do enough and become fatigued from having to care for her." Jerri also adds with a laugh, that when you are the one with cancer, everyone gives you a break.
Jerri beams about the support she received from her fellow Polies and her mother, father, and brothers. "I don't think that cancer is the worst thing that can happen to you," Jerri contemplates. "The worst thing would be being alone and feeling unloved and uncared for." Cancer has enriched her life in ways that she would never have imagined. "I've made so many friends because of it!" At first, Jerri was apprehensive about attending support groups because she felt like it meant she was giving up hope. "Now I go to all of them! I get to meet people and I just love them," laughs Jerri.
Jerri writes of Antarctica, "The first year you come for the adventure. The second year you come for the money. The third year you come because you don't fit anywhere else." When I asked her about how this applies to her, she pauses and then responds, "I still don't fit anywhere, but I have come to like the world again." Living at the Pole was an easy, simple life that Jerri knows she can never return to. She will figure out how to get the same peace she felt at the Pole here in the "real world."
Just as dreams of traveling kept her spirits up at the Pole while undergoing chemotherapy, Jerri still wants to travel. "I want a very full life," she says thoughtfully. "But my first goal is to get back into medicine after I get back from this book tour." Undaunted by the uncertain future that faces her, Jerri declares, "Being on the edge makes life sweeter." If anyone knows what living on the edge is like, it's Dr. Jerri Nielsen.
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Dr. Jerri Nielsen's book, Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole, is published by Talk Miramax Books.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2001.