November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

At the ends of the earth, there is no margin for error. Dropping to an altitude of 300 feet in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, Air National Guard Maj. George McAllister, 39, could barely see past the windshield of his LC-130 Hercules cargo plane as he and his 10-man crew made their approach to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, their vision obscured by the blowing snow of the polar winds. Then suddenly they spotted the lights of the camp and swooped in for a bone-jarring touchdown on the crude frozen runway. “That was one of the most dangerous landings I’ve ever made, what with the wind, cold and awful visibility,” McAllister, who has been flying to the South Pole for 11 years, later recalled. “But we were pumped.”

Just inside the entrance of the Amundsen-Scott station, the camp’s physician, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, 47, of Canfield, Ohio, had been waiting expectantly for the plane’s arrival. As the parka-clad Nielsen headed out to meet the Hercules, other workers swarmed toward the aircraft as well, some jumping and waving their arms. “We’re the first outside people they’ve seen in nine months,” observed one of the crew. With the temperature hovering at 60 below zero, the plane had to be off the ground again in minutes or run the risk of having its hydraulic fluids freeze solid. Mail and provisions were offloaded, but the real goal of the mission was to get the ailing Nielsen out. In just 22 minutes her friends had wished her good luck and seen her onboard, and the plane was off again, taking her on the next leg of what had already become an extraordinary journey.

Over the past months, Nielsen’s South Pole saga has unfolded as both a gripping human drama and a modern allegory of the limits of technology. After discovering in June that she had a tumor in her breast, she could not be evacuated because of the weather, which held her prisoner for more than four months—marooning her, in an age of jet travel and instant communication, as surely as an 18th-century sailor on a desert island. With her rescue last week, there was finally the glimmer of a happy ending. As Nielsen mordantly told friends in an August e-mail: “It has been a Hell of an adventure, but not the one that I had planned.”

In fact, the path that took Nielsen to the South Pole in the first place was hardly direct. Born and raised in Salem, Ohio, the oldest of three children of builder Phil Cahill, now 71, and his wife, Lorine, 67, a psychologist, she studied zoology at Ohio University, where she met her husband, Jay Nielsen, whom she married in 1974. Jerri graduated from the Medical College of Ohio in 1977, two years after Jay. From the start, friends and colleagues noticed their different temperaments. While Jay gravitated toward family medicine, Jerri chose emergency care. “Jerri seemed to be more interested in that excitement,” says Dr. Michael Stark, a former medical school classmate, “wanting to see the person who gets shot in the abdomen, not the person who comes in to be treated for their diabetes and hypertension.”

That enthusiasm carried over to her practice at a succession of Ohio hospitals. “She brightened up the room when she walked in,” says Dr. Jeff Snyder, who along with his wife, Cathy, became a close friend when he worked with Jerri in the ER at St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima from 1995 through ’96. “She was really outgoing and dynamic and got along really well with patients.” But in 1998, after 23 years of marriage, Jay filed for divorce, citing “incompatibility.” He was given custody of the children—Julia, 18, Benjamin, 16, and Alex, 14—and she was ordered to pay $454 per month per child in support. Jay maintains it was Jerri who walked out on him. “I was completely surprised by the events,” he says. “We had actually been getting along quite well.”

Around the time of their split, Jerri heard about an opportunity to be the sole physician at the U.S. camp at the South Pole. The job at the Amundsen-Scott station, which is run by the National Science Foundation for the study of such things as astronomy and global warming, required her to make a one-year commitment and pass a rigorous psychological and physical screening—including a mammogram. For nine months of the year, from January through October 1999, 41 scientists and support personnel—10 women and 31 men—would live almost entirely in the close quarters of the camp, which consists of three main buildings, plus assorted other facilities, beneath an aluminum dome 165 yards in diameter. Outside, the temperatures in the polar winter, when the sun never shines, can drop to 80 degrees below zero—or worse. “Antarctica is like a big animal waiting to eat you up,” says Bob Thomson of New Zealand, a noted polar scientist who made 78 visits there. “It’s the most hostile place on earth.”

Jay, who remarried last year, says he was startled when his ex-wife decided to sign on at the South Pole, especially since it meant being out of physical touch with her children—who, he maintains, first learned of her tumor through the media. Jerri’s friends and family see things quite differently. For starters, they insist she has tried to keep in contact with her children. As for her decision to go to the South Pole in the first place, her friend Cathy Snyder says Jerri considered it a necessary antidote to the pain she felt from her bitter divorce. “She loves her children dearly,” says Snyder. “It was not easy for her to say, ‘I’m going to bolt off to Antarctica and leave my family behind,’ but it was one of those things where she had to find herself again.”

Certainly, amid the desolate beauty of the South Pole there is not much else to be found. From the time she arrived at Amundsen-Scott last November, Nielsen apparently enjoyed the camaraderie she found there. Her main job was running a small hospital, where she took X rays, dispensed medicine and helped with the tension, disorientation and insomnia common to every crew that has been stationed there. “I am responsible for everyone’s mental health, and the general morale for the station usually falls on my shoulders,” she wrote in an e-mail to friends.

And on the cook’s days off, she looked forward to doing substitute duty in the kitchen. She also spoke warmly of get-togethers where people would chat and sometimes read their original poetry, and of her taste for Antarctic snow cones. On one recent occasion, workers transformed the spartan dining room into an Italian restaurant complete with wine, soft music and, as Nielsen put it, “plastic plants from who knows where.” Says her sister-in-law Diana Cahill: “She loves the people down there and she has totally enjoyed every aspect of her experience. There’s a real feeling of family, of gathering around the table, of breaking bread together.”

But in mid-June there came a less happy moment: Nielsen found a lump in her breast. She quickly notified the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., as well as Antarctic Support Associates, whose job it is to back her up on questions of medical treatment. There was no chance of an evacuation at that point, since a plane has never landed at the South Pole in midwinter. Instead, officials in Arlington decided on the less risky but still daring course of having a cargo plane drop diagnostic equipment and anticancer drugs for Nielsen. On July 11, a U.S. Air Reserve C-141 Starlifter parachuted six crates to the camp. A digital microscope survived the drop, as did fresh fruit and vegetables. But an ultrasound machine, which can be used to determine the size and location of a tumor during a biopsy, was crushed when the crate containing it smashed into the ice.

A few days later Nielsen, apparently with the help of two colleagues, gave herself a local anesthetic, then inserted a needle into her own breast and withdrew some tissue for biopsy. It is a procedure that can tense the hand of even the most experienced physician. “To do one on yourself is probably not as technically difficult as it is emotionally difficult,” says Jeff Snyder. “Some doctors can’t even inject themselves.” “With the help of a satellite connection to the Internet, Nielsen was able to send digital images of the tumor cells to doctors in Denver for evaluation. Initially, officials refused to provide any details or even to acknowledge that the tumor was malignant, though Nielsen had begun a regimen of chemotherapy. Her mother also received a picture via the Internet of her daughter losing her hair. “I have found lumps in my breasts before,” Lorine Cahill told London’s Mail on Sunday, “and … I know the fear that I went through. She is being amazingly brave.” Last week, Nielsen released a statement thanking those who rescued her and confirming that cancer had been diagnosed. “I will undergo treatment.” She added, “My spirit is strong.”

Indeed, through it all, friends marveled at how Nielsen seemed to remain upbeat during a time of stress and uncertainty. In August she sent the Snyders and others a vivid description of first light at the Pole, the tiny smudge of blue on the horizon that heralds the approach of the polar spring. “The sky was more spectacular than I have seen it,” she wrote to friends. “The Milky Way was incredibly bright. I wanted to…lay on the ground and contemplate it all.” A month later, she made the short trek to the geographic South Pole to pose for the requisite photograph, an excursion that actually froze one side of her face solid and resulted in a frostbitten cheek, but which she jauntily pronounced “a good experience for me.”

Finally, early this month, at the urging of doctors monitoring her progress by satellite, officials in Arlington elected to try to bring Nielsen out a few weeks before an evacuation would normally have been attempted. The New York-based Hercules departed from Auckland, New Zealand, for McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica, where the weather is far more favorable than at the Pole. The plane waited at McMurdo for two days until the polar temperature rose to approximately 60 below zero, considered the minimum for safety. From there the aircraft made the 1,600-mile round-trip flight to Amundsen-Scott (where a replacement physician was dropped off), then back to New Zealand, where Nielsen was joined by her brothers Scott Cahill, 45, and Eric, 41, for the trip to the U.S. An airman who saw Nielsen when the plane stopped in McMurdo said “she looked in good spirits” and had declined to use the medical cot arranged for her in the cargo hold. She later refused the Air Force’s offer to fly her back to the States, catching a commercial flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, where she would continue on to an undisclosed location.

Her family and the government have guarded Nielsen’s privacy throughout her ordeal, but all indications are that after treatment she will return to her parents’ home in Canfield. Her prognosis remains an open question, since it will depend on what kind of tumor is found. As for whether the wait for full medical treatment will be a factor in her chances for recovery, that too is uncertain. Chances are it will not. According to Dr. John Glaspy, a breast cancer researcher at UCLA, a delay of a few months generally does not have an effect on the type of treatment or the odds of success. “One reason we know that is that doing mammograms once a year is often enough to change the cure rate for breast cancer for the better,” says Glaspy. “The biology of breast cancer is such that it doesn’t usually go from curable to incurable in shorter time frames.”

Although Nielsen was no doubt relieved to be on her way to a hospital in the United States, sister-in-law Diana Cahill suggests that her early departure from Antarctica may have stirred some mixed feelings, given Nielsen’s love for the splendor of the polar ice cap. Yet her time of trial may have helped her find something of what she went looking for there in the first place. Contemplating her impending return home, she wrote last month in an e-mail to her friends, “I see myself becoming weaker, then stronger, among the large Ohio trees that defined my childhood. As much as I love the Ice and the Sea, the most comfortable place is under the canopies of Birches and Hickory, of Maples and of great Oaks.” She signed off that day, “From knowing the darkness, I have seen the light.”

Bill Hewitt

Ron Arias in Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary M. Harrison in Ohio, Mary Green and Kelly Williams in Chicago, Eric Francis in New York City and bureau reports

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