Three ski-equipped cargo planes are en route to New Zealand for possible use in rescuing an ailing physician who is wintering over at the South Pole. Officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which administers the station, have summoned the LC-130 planes for a possible evacuation of Ronald Shemenski, who is suffering from an inflamed pancreas. Shemenski, 59, is the sole doctor for the 50 people spending the austral winter at the Amundsen-Scott Station.
The station has had a string of bad luck during the last 2 years. In 1999, the station's doctor, Jerri Nielsen, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was airlifted out in one of the earliest spring flights to the pole (ScienceNOW, 6 October 1999). Last year, a 32-year-old astrophysicist died of heart failure while at the station (ScienceNOW, 16 May 2000).
This year's medical emergency was caused by a gallstone. These concretions can block the bile duct of the gall bladder, leading to painful inflammation of the gall bladder and the pancreas, and sometimes bacterial infection. Removal of the gall bladder is the standard treatment, but "that's not an option at the pole," says NSF spokesperson Peter West. "We're not set for that kind of surgery."
The station is cut off from other Antarctic bases from February until November because of the mechanical problems to the planes posed by the darkness and intense cold. NSF has asked the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard to fly the planes to New Zealand, in case the weather warms up enough to allow them to land at the pole. Another option is to drop additional supplies, including drugs that would prevent further gallstones.
The situation may resolve itself. Shemenski passed the gallstone last week and seems to be recovering; he's taking antibiotics as a precaution.