- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

Although the New York Air National Guard crew's dramatic rescue of Jerri Nielsen, sick with cancer and stuck at the South Pole, is told in fewer than two pages of her new book, the ski-plane specialists hold a central place in her heart.

"They're heroes, and I owe them my life," Dr. Nielsen said by phone from a Manhattan hotel before starting a 16-city promotional tour for her 362-page memoir, "Ice Bound" (Talk Miramax Books, $23.95).

The following night, she spoke similar sentiments to a national audience on an hourlong ABC "Prime Time" special with Diane Sawyer, who accompanied Dr. Nielsen to Scotia, N.Y., last fall to tape the physician's reunion with the 109th Airlift Wing crew.

Despite zero visibility because of a whiteout and a temperature of 58 below zero that threatened to turn the LC-130 cargo plane's fuel to the consistency of jelly and perhaps lock up its engines, Maj. George R. McAllister, the pilot, and his crew airlifted Dr. Nielsen on Oct. 16, 1999. By nine days, it was the earliest seasonal South Pole landing in the history of Antarctica flight.

The only doctor among the staff of 41 at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station, Dr. Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast that turned out to be an aggressive form of cancer.

She weathered the illness with the help and support of her eccentric colleagues. Known as "Polies," they had signed on for an eight-month "winter-over" duty. During that time, the South Pole is shrouded in darkness, howling wind and fierce cold as low as 100 below zero temperatures that prevent both inbound and outbound flights. South Pole duty is the ultimate in isolation and self-reliance.

With an Internet and Web-cam connection linking Dr. Nielsen with an oncologist back in the United States, the doctor and her close-knit community of friends performed a biopsy and conducted treatment after a daring airdrop of chemotherapy dosages and other medical supplies.

But the cancer-fighting drugs made Dr. Nielsen sick and weak, caused her hair to fall out and her spirits to plummet. Time seemed to be running out as the Polies awaited the return of warmer weather and the traditional first flight into the South Pole on Oct. 25. Through e-mail to friends and family in Ohio, Dr. Nielsen prepared to die at 90 degrees south latitude the most remote and harsh place on the planet.

On Oct. 15, bad weather forced the pilots to turn the plane around. The next day, the stout and snub-nosed Hercules cargo plane, a durable aircraft known as a "Herky bird," emerged from the whiteout like a mirage.

Those on the ground knew the plane had landed only by the high-pitched whine of the four engines' props powering in reverse to stop on the packed snow and ice "skiway." The crew kept the engines revving to prevent freezing up.

The rescue took no more than a few minutes. Dr. Nielsen was too weak to pull herself up into the plane, so her closest colleague, "Big" John Penney, a mechanic, literally tossed her into the aircraft. A few moments later, assisted by the fiery burst of rocket fuel canisters, the plane was up and away.

"It was a total whiteout, so I couldn't see anything, and I was strapped in for takeoff and never got to look out the window," Dr. Nielsen said. "I remember feeling sad that I couldn't see the dome of our research station one last time."

In the back of the plane, she was given oxygen and attended to by a nurse. They had brought along a box of hats donated by researchers from the McMurdo station to cover Dr. Nielsen's bald head. "We all tried on the hats and it was a joyous moment, almost a party atmosphere," she recalled. "I was so thankful that they had taken on this mission. I was finally heading home."

Although the book concludes with the South Pole rescue, the ordeal was only beginning.

Dr. Nielsen returned to her hometown, the dairy farming community of Salem, Ohio, and was cared for by her parents. Along with her physical illness, the former emergency-room director bore psychological scars from a bitter divorce and custody battle that left her estranged from her three children and, in part, had precipitated her move to Antarctica.

After two rounds of chemotherapy, Dr. Nielsen underwent a breast lumpectomy, followed by more chemo and radiation. But an infection caused tissue destruction and she needed a total mastectomy, as well as reconstructive surgery on her abdomen.

Dr. Nielsen, 48, said her cancer appears to be halted for now, but there is about a 50 percent chance that it will recur within the next five years. That hasn't altered her plans.

"I'd love to get back to medicine," she said. "Taking care of sick people is my calling. I'd like to work with cancer patients in particular. Physically, I'm not able to yet, but hopefully soon."

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