A doctor's incredible battle for survival at the South Pole

By Dr. Jerri Nielsen
with Maryanne Vollers

I stepped out into a blinding light, into the whitest world under an impossibly blue sky. The naked South Pole sun seared me right through my polarized goggles. The next thing that hit was a cold so deep and complete it was surreal. My first breaths torched my throat and chilled my lungs. It was cold from another dimension, from an ice planet in a distant galaxy. And this was summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Inside the dome
A look inside the dome at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.
After a few stabbing gulps of thin air, I was quickly reminded that I had gained almost 2 miles in altitude during the three-hour flight from McMurdo base, which everyone calls MacTown. While the plateau was flat as a griddle, it was also as high as the Austrian Alps. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station rests on a 9,000-foot thick slab of ice soaring 9,300 feet above sea level. I immediately felt light-headed, lead-footed, and slightly nauseated, but I still had to drag my bags to the Dome. I forced my body to move, even though it felt like I could not. Then I noticed two figures in bright red parkas walking up to the plane, waving and laughing — presumably at me as I struggled down the stairs.

The Pole is a great physical leveler. At first glance, everyone looks the same, dressed in 20 to 30 pounds of almost identical clothing, with heads and faces completely covered. They were almost in front of me when I recognized one of the figures as Mike Masterman, the winter station manager. With him was Will Silva, the doctor I had come to relieve. Will slapped me on the back and smiled. As we walked together toward the entrance to the Dome, I felt like I was finally coming home.

Will Silva and Mike Masterman guided me down an icy ramp to a tunnel that led to a small town of orange-red metal buildings under the geodesic canopy. In the early 1970s, when the aluminum Dome was being constructed, its ice floor was flush with the level of the plateau. Almost 30 years of storms and blowing snow had nearly buried the structure, which was 165 feet wide and 55 feet tall. Bulldozer and tractor operators were fighting a continuous battle to keep the entrances open and prevent the ice from closing around the Dome. Deep snow canyons ringed the structure, which, I was told, created a safety hazard in the dark months because people tended to fall into them.

The Dome itself was unheated and the indoor temperatures were nearly the same as outside — 35 below zero on this summer day. In fact, the Dome was merely an elaborate windbreak that protected the heated buildings inside from the elements. Three prefabricated structures, each two stories high, made up the nerve center of the station, which was built to house 17 people in winter and 33 in summer. Our winter crew would be 41 because of the year-round construction project to build a new South Pole station. Now, at the height of summer, more than 200 people were working, eating, and trying to live in harmony at this facility. Most slept in Jamesways, canvas Quonset huts with wooden sides, in "Summer Camp," a quarter mile away from the Dome. But all of us would take meals in the same galley and compete for space in the bar or gym or TV lounge at night.

As I walked to a briefing, it occurred to me that the South Pole seemed designed to disorient human beings, like a world reflected in a fun-house mirror. Up was down and down was up. When it was winter back home, it was summer down here. Summer described the season of cold, incessant light, and winter the season of colder, incessant darkness. There was only one day and one night each year (admittedly with a protracted dawn and dusk). Time was practically irrelevant.

HAPPINESS IS A WARM STETHOSCOPE

I was already feeling like a frontier medicine woman, setting up my practice on a vast ice prairie. I quickly learned to keep the head of my stethoscope in my bra to avoid giving my patients frostbite when I lifted their three to five layers of clothing. Fully undressing patients was impractical here.

Not that everybody adopted the standard Polie uniform. That afternoon, while Will was showing me how to fill out accident reports, a very large man burst into the exam room dressed in only a T-shirt, leather jacket, shorts, and Sorel rubber-soled pac boots. He was from Southern California, of course.

"Hey, Will!" said Big John Penney. "I'm gonna fly my model airplane tomorrow. Want to come?"

"Oh, great!" said Will. "Hey, come over here and meet the new doctor!" Will introduced us. Big John was the station's heavy equipment mechanic. After graduating from college he had spent more than a dozen years working on offshore oil rigs. I came to think of him as having lived his life as a sailor without a ship. When the oilfield work slowed down, he had labored "on the yellow iron," heavy equipment. Like me, this was his first time on the Ice. Big John was only average in height but powerfully built and with an enormous presence. He was in his early 40s — a "graybeard." Most of the Polies I had seen were kids in their 20s, so I was happy to meet another grown-up who'd be wintering over.

Big John
Big John Penney and John Wright ("Master Blaster") in front of a piece of heavy equipment named Southern Belle in the Heavy Machine Shop.
Big John had the countenance of a Viking, the voice of a late-night FM disc jockey, and the vocabulary of an English professor, albeit one who grew up hot-rodding on the West Coast.

"Later, dude." He turned to me. "Nice to meet you, Doc."

That was it: I was now, and forevermore, "the Doc." Before long, I was signing my email letters "Doc Holliday." I soon shortened his name to "Big."

Will did his best to prepare me for what to expect during my tour. Respiratory infections and injuries were widespread. Frostbite was so common that few took off work or even came in from the cold for it! Most people treated it themselves with ChapStick or Neosporin. Then there was Dr. Wennen's Frostbite Cream from Fairbanks, Alaska, of which John Wright, a frostbitten miner we called the Master Blaster, would later ask, "What's this? Snake oil?" We never learned the ingredients, so it may well have been. But it sure worked.

Common medical supplies such as adhesive bandages were useless here. They wouldn't stick. Duct tape sometimes worked, electrical tape was great because it stretched.



WE SURE EAT WELL AT THE POLE

Meals at the Pole were always a great social occasion, interrupting the monotony of endless days. Food was served buffet style, in a room with rows of modular cafeteria-style tables. The pillars supporting the second floor, where the bar and extra galley were located, had been decorated with intricate rope patterns, perhaps by a sailor who missed the sea during a long-ago winter when the station was new.

The food at the Pole was reputed to be the best in American Antarctica. I had hoped to lose weight but now saw little chance of that. The meals were varied, enormous feasts. One of the cooks was Donna Aldrich, a woman near my age from Vermont. She had come to the Pole with her fiance, an electrician named Roger Hooker. Her specialty was down-home cooking. Everyone loved her meat loaf and, as Floyd Washington, our genius utilities technician, would so frequently point out, she cooked "food that the guys all recognized." She gave us the comfort food remembered from childhood, stews on cold days, fried chicken, and wonderful roasts.

Loree Galpin soon became a close friend of mine. In her early 20s, she came to the Pole as a meteorologist after doing similar work in the Air Force. She had a great interest in the Orient, particularly Asian literature, and planned to teach English in Japan when she left the Ice. We women would spend evenings in her room, covered in a wonderfully warm, soft comforter that she obtained during a tour in Korea. Here was one of the few places at the Pole where we actually felt warm, and we spent hours talking and getting to know each other. Loree was very smart and good-natured, never saying an unkind thing to anyone. There was a strong spiritual side to her. She was very pretty but seemed oblivious to the obvious interest in her from a number of the guys at the Pole.

Andy Clarke was Loree's closest friend. He was a tall, slender 30-something man with reddish hair and a wide-open smile and a wry sense of humor. Andy worked as a science technician for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. All of the researchers in Antarctica were called "beakers," and Andy referred to himself as a "blue-collar beaker" — like a noncommissioned officer, as the old saw goes, he worked for a living instead of giving orders.

Flag line
Andy Clarke preparing the site for winter by placing a flag line between the Dome and the NOAA building. The flag lines were used in the dark of winter to find the path between the living quarters and the work areas.
Joel Michalski/NOAA .
Joel Michalski became another close friend. A physicist by training, he went to the Pole in a management capacity, as the NOAA officer. He was in charge of the Atmospheric Research Observatory, known as the "clean air facility," where he and Andy studied gases that affect global climate change. Joel was from Wisconsin and had spent a lot of time on ocean research vessels. He promised to teach me to use a sextant and to disco dance, which was his favorite pastime. Most Polies seemed to have multiple interests and talents. In his time off work, Joel liked to draw, read, practice yoga, and write a weekly newsletter to school kids back in the States. He even learned to play the banjo during his year at Pole.

The other meteorologist in the crew was 26-year-old Dar Gibson, the "Weatherboy." He was very precise, which made him good at collecting and collating data. But it made him nuts that I consistently misspelled meteorologist in my computer records. Every time I brought up his file, he would ask me if I had fixed it. After the third time, I showed him the screen and let him see that he had now become, officially, the station's "weatherboy." We all laughed, and he was forever known by his new name.



THANKSGIVING

On Thanksgiving Day, we all piled into the TV lounge to watch football games that had been taped weeks ago and shipped from the States. Nobody seemed to mind. The holiday dinner was truly magical and most civilized. Turkey was served with all the trimmings on tables covered in white linen. Wine was poured in crystal glasses. After dinner we danced to lively Spanish music and toasted each other's toughness and wisdom.

It was always customary for Polies to dress up in their best clothes on special occasions. For men that meant shirts with buttons and collars. Women, who were first allowed to work at the Pole in 1973, generally wore skirts or sarongs. I thought the Polie women who told me to bring pretty clothes were joking. Now I was happy that I had thrown a few dresses into my suitcase, along with a lipstick and a slinky silver blouse I added at the last minute, at the expense of extra fleece undergarments.

Getting cleaned up on occasion was a good morale-booster. Most of the time we looked like refugees from a NASCAR grease pit. Our hair and clothing were dirty due to water rationing. Anything torn or tattered couldn't be replaced, so our overalls and boots were held together with duct tape. When my shearling boots finally went south I stitched them up with a large abdominal needle and surgical catgut.



BIG JOHN PENNEY

Big-hearted John Penney would definitely have been the most eligible bachelor at the Pole except for one thing: He was married. His wife was back home, living in the same town as his parents, just as she had all the years he'd been away on the oil rigs. It was not such an unusual marriage for a Polie. Very little about any of us was conventional. If there was, we wouldn't be here.

It was part of my job to tend to the emotional and psychological health of my colleagues. I spent a lot of time thinking about what type of person goes to the Ice. Many people here spend October through February at Pole and then follow the sun north to Greenland or Alaska. By now we had all heard the famous polar adage: "The first year you come for the adventure. The second year you come for the money. The third year you come because you don't fit anywhere else."

Despite its dangers and its dilapidated condition, I was already fond of the Pole and the place we all called "Dome Sweet Dome." It was sad to think it would be abandoned in 2005, when a new, larger facility was due to be completed. The Dome was to be dismantled and shipped back to the USA for use as a museum or storage facility, so there was no need to spend money fixing up something that was doomed. A new station was being built piece by piece alongside the existing one, and the race was on to bring the huge project in on time and within budget. In the past year, the South Pole had transformed from a sleepy research station to a polar construction work camp. Most of the supply flights to the Pole — which were possible only from late October to mid-February in any case — were now dedicated to hauling construction equipment and materials. Anything else was considered of secondary importance.



A GUARANTEED WHITE CHRISTMAS

Meanwhile, Christmas was coming, and I was getting a dose of holiday blues. I kept writing to my children but never heard a word back from them. I wondered if they had even been getting my letters and email. I knew they had received some presents I had arranged — including a pickup truck for Ben's 16th birthday. While there was still mail service at the Pole, I posted souvenirs and cards. I sent them all personal emails and copied them with letters on my "family and friends" list, but they never responded or acknowledged the gifts. The wounds of separation opened again and again as the people at the Pole asked me about my life back home and my kids. I tried evasion, but they kept pushing for details, just to make friendly conversation. How could I explain what I could hardly believe myself?

I confided my feelings to my mother, one of the only people I could talk to about my children.

From: Jerri Nielsen
To: Mom
Date: 18 Dec. 1998 12:13:03 +1200
Subject: Mom to Daughter chat

I have been really sad about the kids for the past two days. I don't know why. I just can't believe that I lost them all. I can't understand it and it hurts so deeply. I can't look at their pictures. Everyone here has pictures of loved ones taped to walls in their rooms. I can't. I put them up then took them down.

Have you heard from Ben about the truck?

Don't they ever think of me? Love, Duffy

My family was relentlessly encouraging. My mother was determined that this year would be the best experience of my life. My brothers were proud of me, particularly Scott, the wild child, who understood something about living in the badlands. We had always been close, but now we were writing each other regularly and his letters were extraordinary. After I wrote a sad letter about my loneliness, he answered with this:

From: Scott Cahill
To: Jerri Nielsen
Date: Wed., 16 Dec. 1998 20:11:45 -0500
Subject: Re: Polar Love
I am very proud of you, and we all think of you a lot. This is not summer camp — but then — who wants something that anyone can do? Of course you miss the outside world — everyone who ever sailed single-handed or explored the jungles or the tropics or the deserts or the open cold of the polar regions has missed the world and faced "the grim reaper," laughed in his face and then, when they re-enter this world — they are never quite the same. They understand things that they never saw all of their lives sitting on the bench beside them.

Take this from one who has sailed out away from the horizon alone at night a hundred miles out with the monsters and the angels and the solitude and the loneliness: You are where you are. You are very fortunate to be there. Enjoy and savor every minute of it. Feel the cold — when winter comes — feel the isolation and solitude — breathe it in, savor it — THIS IS LIFE — this is the edge — the edge is everything.

Scott Cahill

SNOWMOBILE RIDE WILL DO YOU GOOD

Quite soon after, Big John came over and said, "Doc, what you need is a motorcycle ride." We called the snow machines motorcycles — another example of Polarspeak — and Big was the monarch of the motorcycles. Because he was in charge of maintaining the vehicles at Pole, he had access to all the snowmobiles, and he had chosen the best one for his personal hotrod.

I allowed him to abduct me from the station. I pulled on my parka and climbed on behind him, and we were flying. I just held on as the wind burned us and we sailed over the wind-carved waves of ice. We went straight out into the nothingness of the polar plateau.

Dental work
Dr. Jerri Nielsen with James Evans ("Pic") in Biomed.
John Penney
At a point 5 miles from the station where you can see nothing except 360 degrees of horizon, we stopped and shut down the machine for a minute and listened to the absolute silence of the ice. The place was so beautiful, so clean and perfect. I was beginning to learn to read the subtle changes in color and texture of the endless horizon, the wash of the sun through a thin veil of clouds, the direction of the wind. It is hard to imagine how many shades of white and blue there are until they, alone, give the world definition. I began to feel a shift in my heart, like a key fitting into a lock. I was opening up to the emptiness, as it revealed itself to me.

On Feb. 15, we held the traditional station-closing ceremony as the last flight to pick up passengers at the South Pole called in its approach. It was an Air Guard Hercules.

Almost everybody left at the Pole — the last remaining summer staff and the hardcore winterovers — gathered in the galley. Welder Walt Fischel, a lively member of the construction crew, wore a huge top hat emblazoned with the Guinness label; one of my summer friends sat in the front row wearing a rainbow-colored Afro wig. Jerry Marty, the NSF representative, said a few words thanking us for serving our country and told us he'd see us again on Oct. 25, the traditional reopening of the South Pole station.

My videocamera rolled as the crew sent him off with light applause. Then Jim Chambers, from ASA, stepped to the front of the room. "Only about 1,200 people in history have wintered at the South Pole," he said, "so you are entering a very elite group "

Just then a voice on the intercom cut him off. "Aircraft is on deck." We started whooping and hollering. Winter was suddenly very real. Chambers sped through his remarks. Dave Fischer, the SPAM, was returning to Denver for the winter. As of today, Mike Masterman would be in charge of the station.



ALONE AT LAST

Life was harder in some ways, but so much more enjoyable now that we were finally alone. All the winterovers had by now moved into the Dome or to the Elevated Dorm out in the suburbs. We held work parties in the lingering twilight to string flag lines between buildings so that people wouldn't get lost in the coming darkness. The routes that would be used during the winter were marked by 6-foot bamboo poles, connected with rope and topped with color-coded flags that you might be able to see with a flashlight. Green flags denoted a safe route, red ones marked hazards such as drop-offs, and black flags meant "off-limits." As the sun set and the wind picked up, we would pull our way along, careful not to leave the path. By now it was minus 55 F inside the Dome, and you couldn't walk between the inner buildings without a coat. My hands would go numb taking out the trash. If I showered and then ran to the galley, my hair would turn stiff and brittle before I got there.

The setting sun threw long shadows over the station, and there was an eerie feeling everywhere, like a wonderful night animal was lurking across the ice. Behind it was more darkness, weeks and months of darkness. This was the beginning of our passage into an unknown world, and everyone in the crew seemed energized. It felt like the start of something magical.

This period just before winter was the best time of year for "skua-ing" around the station. "To skua" was to glean what had been abandoned by others, a practice named for the gull-like skuas that flock to the Antarctic coast in the summer and pick through the trash bins at McMurdo. I found I had a real knack for the art of skua-ing. I enjoyed diving into trash bins for things that I could clean up and fix. I would find games and Halloween costumes stashed on the rooftops in the Dome or art supplies out on the berms. When it came to medical supplies or equipment, I had no compunctions about appropriating them for the hospital.



WINTEROVER CREW BECOMES ONE

The winterover crew was starting to function like one organism, with one big immune system, and in a way, one nervous system, too. We developed a synergy that grew more and more intense as the weeks went by. If one person was sick or unhappy, the whole group could feel it. There was no way to avoid each other, even if we wanted privacy. There were few secrets at Pole. You could hear the people in the next room turn over in their bed. You couldn't crank your stereo loud enough to block out private conversations. Everyone knew where you were most of the time. If you tried to slip away, people knew you were missing. To escape, some tried to live opposite hours to everyone else, or they stayed in an uninhabitable place, such as a sleeping bag under a telescope.

This was a sign of "being toasted." Toastiness is actually a documented syndrome characterized by social withdrawal, staring into space, memory loss, and attention deficit. We had all seen examples of toasted Polies when we first arrived at the station and ran into members of the outgoing winterover crew. They would avoid eye contact with us and seek only each other's company. They would wander away in mid-sentence. I had read about this condition in the Navy's polar manual. The Navy thought it was caused by constant lack of intellectual stimulation and sensory deprivation. Some suffered more severely than others. They would shut down and do almost nothing. You would find them lost in no thought at all, looking out to a horizon that wasn't there. Generally, the symptoms started to appear in August. For our crew, however, signs of toast showed up much earlier. Joel, the dancing NOAA officer, started turning into a hermit almost as soon as the sun went down. Andy, who worked with him, noticed it first. "Joel is turning into a dog," Andy announced at breakfast one morning. "All he does is eat and sleep and take his walk every day to the Clean Air Facility." He wasn't alone. Pakman, the rocking electrician, would fall asleep immediately after supper. Others, referred to as the "walking dead," rarely slept at all.

To keep the monotony of sunless, identical workdays from taking its toll, we tried to stay as active and motivated as possible. Now that summer was over, we had more time and space to entertain ourselves. We set up tables in the upper galley for the hobbyists. Big John, Ken, and Charlie started building airplanes, and Mike was constructing a large Victorian dollhouse. Like some polar equivalent of the Walton family, Yubecca and Liza made a quilt, Donna and I sewed, and Heidi and Wendy knitted.

To keep every day distinct, we stacked up weekly events. Every Tuesday was Bad Science Fiction Movie Night in the TV lounge. Some of the world's greatest telescopes were here, and with them came the world's greatest astronomers. Great astronomers have strange tastes in movies. One week we saw Godzilla vs. Megagodzilla. Another week it was Journey to the Center of the Earth. Saturday nights were dedicated to action movies. We arrived early in the TV lounge to get a place on one of the three couches, which we called bobsleds. Three to five people would pile on, often in a long row, with each person sitting between another's legs, using the other's chest for a back rest. The station was built to winter 17 people, and we were 41.

Other activities to keep us going through the winter were the card games and darts in the 90 South Bar, a small gym for those with the fortitude to work out, and a sauna. My favorite diversion was just relaxing in each other's rooms and talking with friends. Everyone had a story here, and I truly never tired of listening.

To an outsider, all the games and parties and silly nicknames might seem a bit childish for such a serious mission, but in fact all of them stemmed from a long and sensible tradition. The earliest polar explorers did the same sorts of things to survive in this harsh and isolated environment. Scott's men put on elaborate plays to pass the time and dressed up as women for some of the roles. Shackleton's men played football on the pack ice while their ship was slowly crushed. There is wisdom in the notion of laughing in the face of danger. It helps people cope.



THE DISCOVERY
THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING


Not long after our first South Pole winter poetry slam, perhaps just a few nights later, I found a mass in my breast. I was sitting in bed, reading a book, and absently rubbing my upper chest when my fingers stopped on a small, hard lump. It was near the surface of my right breast, at 12 o'clock. I palpated it, trying to decide how big it was and what it might mean. I had fibrocystic breasts and had found small breast lumps before. They were always related to my menstrual cycle and went away after a few weeks. Lumps ran in the family; my mother had the same condition and had even had a couple of biopsies done on benign masses. My mammogram had been negative only six months ago, so I wasn't particularly worried. I decided to keep an eye on this lump and wait a month to see if anything changed.

From: Jerri Nielsen
To: Mom and Dad
Date: Sun., 22 Mar. 1999 07:44:06 +1200
Subject: Sunset

Today the sun set without us. We saw it dipping at the horizon yesterday, thinking that we could relish the slow end to our four-month day. Instead, we woke to an Antarctic storm, which obscured the horizon and the long-awaited setting sun. The world was altogether different today. It is the world that I came to experience. There was an eerie twilight around us. The 360-degree circle of flat ice and horizon is washed with pink all along the edge of our world. Otherwise, it was quite dark, not yet night, but no longer day for 6 months. The wind had picked up the snow into the air so that everything was blurry. It looked threatening yet so wondrous. It was more of what I thought life here would be like.

There are those among us who speak of huge knots in their stomachs as they think of the quickness of the coming darkness. I can imagine how they feel and how natural that reaction must be. For me, the coming of the terrible and terrifying darkness is exhilarating! Today was the most beautiful yet in this great landscape.

I will love the night. Love, Duffy

A month had come and gone since I first discovered a lump in my breast. I had hoped it would disappear after my period, as others had done before. But it was still there and had grown slightly bigger and more irregular. I could feel the beginnings of another mass just below it. I decided to wait a while longer before telling anyone, as nothing could be done about this. I wanted to see if other changes occurred. I knew it could be cancer, but I wasn't prepared to believe that yet, and I didn't want to raise the alarm by telling anyone at the Pole. There were so many other possible explanations for the mass: It could be a cyst, or a benign tumor. If it was a malignancy, I assumed I could not get any sort of treatment for the next seven months until the station reopened. This meant I would die, either on the Ice or soon after leaving here.

Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Strangely, thinking about the possibility of dying didn't bother me that much. I had already lived through one of the worst catastrophes a mother could endure. Death didn't seem nearly as terrible as losing my children. Besides, I had understood the risks when I took on this mission. Until I knew more about the mass in my breast, all I could do was to get on with the business of living my life and keeping my people healthy.

Around this time, Joel wanted to send a photograph of me along with the weekly newsletter he sent to his pen pal high school science classes. He took my picture in the treatment room of Biomed, sitting between the photographs of Frederick Cook, the first physician to winter in Antarctica, and the first doctor to reach the Pole, Bill Wilson, my medical predecessors on the Ice. In my portrait you can see exhaustion in my face, a touch of sadness in my eyes, and a wry smile on my lips. I deliberately chose the spot between my Dead Doctors; it was a grim joke only the three of us shared.