Dramatic Rescue Operation in Antarctica


A medical emergency was under way Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at the largest research station in Antarctica, which is the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.(Photo Credit: CNN)

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By Josh Levs and Phil Gast, CNN

(CNN) — A dramatic medical evacuation mission played out Thursday as an aircraft picked up a patient from a research station in Antarctica, landing on a ice runway during a narrow window of “twilight” in the continent’s dark winter.

While officials apparently found a weather break, nature offered a chilly reception at McMurdo Station, where temperatures Thursday were -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 Celsius), according to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

An Australian medical team, asked by the United States to assist, flew on an A319 Airbus from Christchurch, New Zealand. The team arrived at McMurdo Station about 1:15 p.m. Thursday New Zealand time (9:15 p.m. ET Wednesday) to pick up the unidentified patient, said Patti Lucas, spokeswoman for the Australian Antarctic Division.

The plane didn’t stay on the ground for long: it was back in the air by around 2:30 p.m. New Zealand time, said Debbie Wing, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Science Foundation, which oversees the facility. It is expected to arrive back in Christchurch a little after 6 p.m.

The patient, believed to be an American citizen, was in stable condition before the plane’s arrival, Wing said.

The mission to the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program was occurring during the Antarctic winter, when there is virtually no daylight for six months. No U.S. aircraft were in position to respond quickly.

Wing said she could not say whether the person’s condition is life-threatening. But the patient requires medical attention beyond what can be provided by the medical team at the research facility, which Wing said is “like a portable hospital unit.” Corrective surgery may be required.

There is currently “some twilight at midday,” which may help the pilot see when making a landing at McMurdo, which has one of the few runways on the continent that can accommodate aircraft with wheels, Wing said.

Wing said she could not say whether the patient became sick or injured while at the facility, but she noted that there is “a very rigorous health screening process that you must go through” to be at the facility. “I would assume that the person did not go with any existing condition that would have posed a problem.”

McMurdo can have nearly 1,500 people during the regular season, but during the winter, there are only about 60 to 70 people there, Wing said. There are no regular flights at this time of year.

Nations “work together very cooperatively” in such situations, Dr. Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division, said in a statement.

The station, established in 1955, is built on bare volcanic rock on Ross Island, the solid ground farthest south that is accessible by ship, according to the NSF, an independent U.S. government agency. It has landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, as well as a helicopter pad.

Researchers there conduct studies in astrophysics, biology, medicine, geology, glaciology and ocean and climate systems.

In September 2010, New Zealand’s air force evacuated an American man at McMurdo. The first flight had to turn back because of heavy snow and limited visibility. The second flight touched down in the freezing weather and got the man out. Earlier in 2010, New Zealand rescued another sick American from McMurdo.

Last October, an American researcher who suffered a suspected stroke while working at the South Pole was rescued by the U.S. Air Force. She was flown from the South Pole to McMurdo Station, then on to Christchurch.

American Dr. Jerri Nielsen caught the nation’s attention in 1999, when she found a lump in her breast as a 47-year-old physician stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station.

After finding the lump, she diagnosed herself with breast cancer and began treating herself using chemotherapy agents that the U.S. Air Force parachuted to the station the next month.

It was later revealed, according to a March 2009 article in the Detroit Free Press newspaper, that Nielsen — an emergency room doctor from Cleveland, Ohio — performed a biopsy on herself with the help of non-medical crew, who practiced using needles on a raw chicken.

Her cancer later returned and Nielsen, 57, died in 2009.

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