U.S. scientists said yesterday a woman marooned at a South Pole research station with a lump in her breast is not in mortal danger and new equipment airdropped over the pole last weekend will enable her to hold real-time consultations with her stateside doctors.
"She will begin medical treatment immediately," said Karl A. Erb, director of polar programs for the National Science Foundation, which oversees the United States' tiny Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Erb said six pallets loaded with nearly a ton of supplies were "in good shape" except for an ultrasound machine, destroyed in the low-altitude parachute drop.
The machine can be used to provide detailed images of the lump and "would have been useful" to have, Erb said, but "is not essential." Foundation Director Rita Colwell said the medicine and other equipment that arrived in the airdrop "will allow us to make further diagnosis" and proceed with a course of treatment.
The woman is identified as a 47-year-old employee of Antarctic Support Associates, an Englewood, Colo.-based firm that provides the base with service employees, including everything from cooks to heavy equipment operators.
Foundation officials have declined to release the woman's name, but she was identified as the station's lone doctor in a July 8 report by ScienceNow, an online news service operated by Science, a scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in yesterday's New York Times.
Although Support Associates personnel said last week the woman had had a biopsy, Colwell refused to comment on whether the lump had been found to be cancerous or whether a diagnosis had even been made: "Yes, it could be" a benign lump, she said. "We're taking all the precautions."
The woman had a mammogram as part of the rigorous physical examination undergone by every one of the 41 Support Associates employees, construction workers and researchers wintering at the Pole.
She found the lump in mid-June, and the foundation decided to airdrop equipment and medicine to the station. A U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter made the delivery early Sunday morning.
The shipment included a range of medicines to provide whatever course of treatment might be recommended to stabilize the woman's condition until she can be evacuated in late October -- the southern spring, officials said.
In addition, the airdrop included sophisticated telecommunications equipment to enable the woman to consult face-to-face with stateside doctors "in real time," Erb said. The equipment will also enable improved digital transmission of data -- including test results.
"The woman is receiving the best medical care she can under the circumstances," Colwell said. "She is being treated appropriately with full care."
Only three times has a U.S. aircraft landed anywhere in Antarctica between February and October, and never at the Pole, where temperatures averaging less than minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit turn the landing strip into an unnavigable stretch of moguled ice.
Erb said the foundation was assessing the requirements of a midwinter evacuation but had no plans to implement such a "high-risk" strategy: "We're not facing an immediate life-threatening situation," he said.