By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009
Jerri Nielsen, an emergency room physician from Ohio working for a year at the South Pole's scientific station, had no other medical professional to rely upon when she discovered a lump in her breast in March 1999.
The polar winter had set in, and by the time Dr. Nielsen realized that the lump was not a benign cyst, there was no hope of an airlift until October. So Dr. Nielsen, using ice as an anesthetic, stuck herself in the breast 20 times, hoping to get enough tissue for a biopsy. A welder trained as her co-surgeon, practicing needle pricks and incisions with a potato and thawed chicken; a mechanic set up a microscope and computer to transmit images of the biopsy to the United States.
The tumor was diagnosed as an aggressive form of cancer. The National Science Foundation, which sponsored the station, arranged to have six packages of supplies, including an ultrasound machine and anti-cancer drugs, delivered by the U.S. military. The airdrop was dangerous; fuel could freeze in the cold, and the drop zone was a field lit only by firelight. It succeeded, although the ultrasound machine shattered. The world's attention was riveted.
Dr. Nielsen administered her own hormone injections and intravenous chemotherapy, in consultation with U.S. doctors by videoconference and e-mail. By the time South Pole temperatures rose -- to 58 degrees below zero -- she had developed several infections and it was imperative that she be evacuated. Her Oct. 16, 1999, extraction, another dangerous air mission, was the earliest in South Pole history.
Dr. Nielsen died June 23 at her home in Southwick, Mass. The cancer, which had been in remission until 2005, returned and spread to her liver, bones and eventually to her brain. She was 57.
Her transition from an unknown doctor working in one of the world's most isolated locations to the woman featured in world media was difficult, and Dr. Nielsen recoiled from the spotlight during much of her treatment and recovery. By 2001, however, she published "Icebound," an account of the experience that became a bestseller and was turned into a TV movie starring Susan Sarandon. She became a motivational speaker and a roving emergency room doctor at numerous Northeastern hospitals.
She was born March 1, 1952, the eldest of three children to a homemaker and construction contractor, Lorine and Phil Cahill, on a farm in eastern Ohio. She graduated from Ohio University and in 1977 received a degree from the Medical College of Ohio. She married a medical school classmate, Jay Nielsen, went into practice with him and had three children.
Her 24-year marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1998. Later, when the world was absorbed with her tale, her ex-husband publicly denounced her as a bad mother, claiming she was only pretending to have cancer to get attention. After Dr. Nielsen published her book, her ex-husband sued her and her publisher for $6 million, alleging that she defamed him and invaded his privacy. The suit was settled, according to court records.
After her divorce, Dr. Nielsen began working as an emergency room physician in Ohio. Less than a year into the job, she found an ad in a medical magazine seeking a physician willing to spend a year at the bottom of the world. Almost on a whim, she decided to leave Ohio.
"I wasn't running away. I was changing my life. I was looking for adventure," she told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2003. "Look, I had gotten to a point in my world where I was 46 years old, at the top of my career. And I was asking myself, do I want to do the same thing for the next 20 years? Sure, I'd had an unfortunate marriage, but lots of people do."
She landed Nov. 21, 1998, to find that the polar station had a two-bed hospital, nicknamed the Hard Truth Medical Centre, stocked with supplies from the 1950s. With no nurse or assistants, Dr. Nielsen had to learn how to hang IV bags, perform blood tests and develop X-rays.
She cleaned equipment with a toothbrush, did pelvic exams with kitchen spoons and mixed her own medical potions. She also was the storekeeper, postmaster and, thanks to a five-hour crash course back home, dentist. Because of a water shortage, each person was limited to two two-minute showers and one load of laundry per week.
Antarctica is "so hostile and alien to life that life sang out, and every small breath was a triumph against nothingness," she later wrote. "The route to the Pole was, after all, an inner journey. Antarctica was a blank slate on which you could write your soul."
She dove into polar life, making friends with the 41 others stationed there and engaging in traditions such as running naked outside at minus-100-degree temperatures. When she finally told her support team in the United States of the breast lump, it was June 10. Two days later, after determining that the lump was solid, the U.S. specialists decided that they needed a tissue sample to make a diagnosis, and they would have to air-drop supplies.
"Isn't it true that if you have breast cancer, there is no cure unless it was totally removed initially?" Dr. Nielsen asked her Indianapolis oncologist in an e-mail. "I don't want people risking their lives to air drop things to me if it doesn't matter and won't save my life."
Amid all that anxiety, word of her situation hit the news. The National Science Foundation issued a news release about the upcoming mission, identifying her only as "a 47-year-old woman." On July 8, her mother wrote: "Dan Rather's lead story was your lump."
When she got back, she had a mastectomy and a second surgery. She did benefits for cancer organizations, returned to the Antarctic several times and married Tom FitzGerald, whom she had met 23 years ago while both were on vacation in the Amazon.
In addition to her husband, survivors include her parents, of Canfield, Ohio; three children from her first marriage; and two brothers.
Last October, knowing that her cancer had returned, Dr. Nielsen told a medical college class at her alma mater: "There is no end of your life until your last breath. We can all do something to help someone."