Phenomenal Woman: Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Almost exactly a year after her dramatic rescue by airlift, I am on my way to meet Nielsen. By now I've learned more about her: that she underwent surgery immediately after returning to the States; that she has written a memoir (with Maryanne Vollers), Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole. But who is she really?
"I always wanted to live on the frontier," she explains now. "I always wondered what it would be like to cross the prairie on a wagon train and to have no idea what was over the hill."
When she began to feel trapped in her life, she happened on an ad for a job as a doctor at the South Pole. This was exactly what she had been looking for.
To Nielsen, the South Pole sounded like heaven on earth: She would be the only doctor on a base at the end of the supply line—"Eight hundred miles from the next base, and that's nowhere." She would have no nurses, no orderlies, no support staff. She would have to do everything, from delicate brain surgery (if that was what was required) to scrubbing the operating room floor. In a pinch, she would function as a dentist, largely on the strength of a five-day crash course in dentistry.
In March 1999 the last plane had departed—no more supplies or emergency evacuations until October at the very earliest. Nielsen had been looking forward to this: the outlandishly long period of cold and darkness that would give her the chance to test her spirit. But she could not imagine how awful that test would be. A few weeks later, she was in her room reading when she felt the mass, at a point just above her right breast. She palpated it, then tried to make a medical judgment: cancer, or just another benign cyst, the kind she had had before?
The mass in her breast had grown. And she now had a painful swelling under her right arm. As a doctor, she judged it was likely to be cancer. She also realized that she would have to tell the station manager, who suggested that she e-mail Gerald Katz, the doctor in charge of Antarctic medical stations. Nielsen laid it on the line for him: "What I am asking is tough. You know the Ice. Should I sit on this for five more months, or should I perform an operation on myself and remove it?"