South Pole Rescue Doctor Dies

In 1999, Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald was the only doctor at a remote research station in Antarctica when she diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer. Nielsen Fitzgerald died Wednesday at age 57.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We turn now to the extraordinary story of Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald. In 1999, she was the only doctor at a remote research station in Antarctica when she diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer. Nielsen FitzGerald died yesterday, at 57. It was while serving as doctor for a staff of 41 at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, that Nielsen found a lump in her breast. Here she is speaking to NPR in 2001.

Dr. JERRI NIELSEN FITZGERALD: When I first felt it I thought, I'm cooked…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FITZGERALD: … because I knew that, the station I had just closed, a plane had attempted to come to the South Pole and had to turn around, due to weather. And at that point they said to us we can't get in, you're alone, good luck.

BLOCK: With her rescue out of the question, Nielsen had no choice but to treat the disease herself. She stayed in touch with doctors in the U.S. via email. She even performed a biopsy on herself with the help of two co-workers. After months of giving herself chemotherapy, Nielsen was air lifted out in dramatic fashion.

Dr. FITZGERALD: I wasn't really able to get on the plane. I was so weak. So, I was picked up and thrown on the plane, physically thrown on the plane - landed on my hands and knees. And when I turned around to say goodbye, everyone was gone.

BLOCK: After further treatment in the U.S., Nielsen's cancer was in remission until August 2005. As she told NPR, she learned an important lesson from her experience at the South Pole.

Dr. FITZGERALD: I had - I guess I had a romantic notion that there was a frontier and that there were adventures to be had in another time, but not in our time. Now, I realize that there are always adventures in life. That's what life is. It's just this long, up and down adventure. And the South Pole really taught me that, that it isn't a different time. It's now.

BLOCK: Dr. Jerri Nielson Fitzgerald died yesterday from breast cancer. She was 57.

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