South Pole Doctor Who Treated Herself for Cancer Dies

  1. Dr. Jerri Nielsen, an emergency room physician from Ohio working for a year at the South Pole's scientific station, had no other medical professional to rely upon when she discovered a lump in her breast in March 1999.

    The polar winter had already set in and by the time Dr. Nielsen realized the lump was not a benign cyst, there was no hope of an airlift until October. So Dr. Nielsen, using ice as an anesthetic, stuck herself in the breast 20 times, hoping to get a enough tissue for a biopsy. A welder trained as her co-surgeon, practicing needle pricks and incisions with a potato and thawed chicken; a mechanic set up a microscope and computer to transmit images of the biopsy to the United States.

    The tumor was diagnosed as an aggressive form of cancer. The National Science Foundation, which sponsored the station, arranged to have six packages of supplies, including an ultrasound machine and anti-cancer drugs, air dropped by the U.S. military. The world's attention was riveted.

    Dr. Nielsen administered her own hormone injections and intravenous chemotherapy, in consultation with U.S. doctors by videoconference and e-mail. By the time South Pole temperatures warmed -- to 58 degrees below zero -- she had developed several infections and it was imperative that she be evacuated. Her Oct. 16, 1999, extraction, another dangerous air mission, was the earliest in South Pole history.

    Her mission started when she landed Nov. 21, 1998, to find the polar station had a two-bed hospital, nicknamed "the Hard Truth Medical Centre," stocked with supplies from the 1950s. With no nurse or assistants, Dr. Nielsen had to learn how to hang IV bags, perform blood tests and develop her own X-rays.

    She cleaned equipment with a toothbrush, did pelvic exams with kitchen spoons and mixed her own medical potions. She also was the storekeeper, postmaster and, thanks to a five-hour crash course back home, the dentist. She wrote a book "Icebound," an account of her experience that became a bestseller and was turned into a TV movie starring Susan Sarandon.

    Dr. Nielsen died June 23 at her home in Southwick, Mass. The cancer, which had been in remission until 2005, returned and spread to her liver, bones and eventually to her brain. She was 57.
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    About Anxious Patient

    Joined: Mar '07; Posts: 1,101; Likes: 1,979
    housewife and mother; from US


  3. by   Teresag_CNS
    Wow. What a pioneer! It's hard for me to even imagine what finding that lump, biopsying it, and then treating herself was like. Courageous woman, rest now.
  4. by   scrapbookcrazy
    I read this woman's story and saw the real movie and the made for TV movie regarding her life. I was just completing my breast cancer treatment. I am so sorry that she died from it. She was an amazing woman. I thought her story about life in the antarctic was fascinating even without the cancer part! Like when it hits 100 below zero some of the scientists take their clothes off and run outside (they keep their shoes on)!

    I hope her children resolved their issues with her before she died. I am deeply saddened. Cancer sucks!
  5. by   gonzo1
    This amazing lady is way up high on my list of "People I would love to meet", like Florence Nightingale, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and a few more.
  6. by   MS._Jen_RN
    Strange, I just finished reading her book yesterday. It was very good, well written, interesting. As said above, it would have been excellent without the part about her having such a first hand part in diagnosing and treating her own cancer. I hope that she got to sail like she was dreaming about while at the pole. May her soul find a happy place.
  7. by   greeniebean
    I would love to read her book. She sounds like an incredible woman.
  8. by   emmalou*
    I remember this lady so well, I remember the day I heard she'd diagnosed her own breast cancer in the isolated South Pole station. I'm so sad the cancer came back, she sounds like a true pioneer and such a brave, strong person.

    The stuff I'm reading about her now truly amazes me, not just the cancer diagnosis and treatment in those initial months when she couldn't be airlifted out, but the role itself she was involved in at the South Pole.

    I would also love to read her book, think I'll go have a look for it online.
  9. by   rn/writer
    I'm glad her courageous choice to biopsy and treat herself bought her another ten years. She was still far too young to go, but at least she knew how precious her life was.

    Will have to get a copy of Icebound.
  10. by   Chaya
    I read her book soon after completing my own treatment for breast cancer and it was life-changing for me. You can't even begin to imagine what you are capable of until you are faced with something like this. She has been for me one of the most inspiring medical people of all time. I recently found myself wondering how she had fared in the long run, knowing how aggressive her cancer was and the obstacles she overcame to treat it. Although I am greatly saddened that the world has lost this amazing woman and healer, I am reminded that the makeshift treatment devised by her and her team of "Polies" brought her 10 additional years of life which is amazing in itself.
    And, yes, please read her book if you have not already. It is inspiring-and it is also one of the greatest all-round adventure stories I have read in all my life.
  11. by   nickos
    I was JUST talking about this woman and her amazing story to a friend yesterday. I read the book about three or four years ago, and the whole thing was amazing and other people said; even without the cancer part. Just a brave and incredible woman....I highly reccommend the book!
  12. by   cjcsoon2bnp
    Her story sounds so amazing. I really want to get a copy of Icebound and to see the movie.

  13. by   shrinky
    Her story and death should be receiving more headlines than MJ's death as she was truly an inspiring person and a hero of sorts. I can't imagine living under the conditions that she had to endure and caring not only for herself but also for others. There are so many unsung heroes and I consider nurses to be in that group as wel as some docs. Someday I hope that people will come to their senses and recognize who true heroes are. Thanks for letting me add my two cents.
  14. by   SuesquatchRN
    Her book was wonderful.

    My she rest in peace.