OCTOBER 16, 00:02 EDT

Ailing Doctor Rescued at South Pole

Associated Press Writer

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — A U.S. military plane rescued an American doctor from the South Pole on Saturday, five months after she found a lump in her breast but remained stranded by subzero temperatures.

The LC-130 Hercules from the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing picked up Dr. Jerri Nielsen during a 22-minute stop at the South Pole in what officials said was possibly the earliest ever post-winter flight to the world's coldest region.

The plane then returned to McMurdo station on the Antarctic coast, completing the 1,600-mile round trip to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in about six hours.

When she departs from McMurdo, the 47-year-old Youngstown, Ohio, resident will likely be flown to New Zealand and then to the United States for treatment.

Jerri Nielsen

The landing temperature at the South Pole was 58 degrees below zero, the point at which the Air Force said it was just warm enough to fly.

``Visibility was not as high as we would like, but we landed,'' U.S Air Force spokesman Victor Hines said from Christchurch, New Zealand.

After the plane touched down on a runway carved out of ice, Nielsen was helped aboard and a replacement doctor was left behind at the research station, a dome in the polar snow and ice that houses 41 researchers from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The Hercules' four propeller engines kept turning to keep the aircraft from cooling and being crippled by the extreme cold.

Dr. Jerri Nielsen

Nielsen has been treating herself with chemotherapy since medical supplies were dropped to her in July. She discovered the lump early in the polar winter, when no landings were possible at the pole.

``She likes a lot of stimulation and a lot of change,'' her mother, Lorine Cahill, said at the family's rural Ohio home, where she received an e-mail photo of her daughter, bald from chemotherapy. ``She didn't go there to escape. She went there for an adventure. She was always courageous.''

Before she noticed the lump, Nielsen would regale her parents with letters about her friendships at the research station and the need to do just about everything — even performing emergency dental work.

``She called herself Doc Holliday,'' Mrs. Cahill said. ``She felt like she was out on the prairie.''

The National Science Foundation, at Nielsen's request, has refused to disclose details of her condition or her travel plans.

``She has become a public figure through circumstance and not through choice,'' National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell said in a written statement.

Peter West, the foundation's spokesman, said the group is ``very pleased the mission is proceeding well and the air force has been able to pick up Dr. Nielsen this early and get her out of there.''

As well as its usual crew of six, the Hercules also carried a senior mission commander, a two-member medevac team, two maintenance personnel and a replacement doctor to take Nielsen's place at the polar station.

The mission was finally launched after days of frustration caused by unpredictable polar weather. The type of plane involved becomes difficult to handle in extremely low temperatures, as hydraulic systems operate sluggishly below minus 58 degrees.

Two Hercules planes had to wait for an extra day after arriving in southern New Zealand this week before flying to the Antarctic coast. Then, they were forced to postpone planned rescue attempts on Thursday and Friday after temperatures plunged as low as minus 76 degrees.

After one plane left for the South Pole, the second remained on standby at McMurdo as a backup.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.