'Run of Bad Luck': Three doctors in a row in medical trouble at Pole

Thursday, April 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (AP) _ Three doctors in a row, all felled by medical emergencies at the South Pole's Amundsen-Scott Station _ the coldest, windiest, emptiest and probably riskiest place on Earth to get sick or hurt.

Chalk it up, as one doctor said, to plain bad luck.

``I think it kind of proves that fact is stranger than fiction. You really couldn't write a scenario like this,'' said Dr. Robert Thompson, who fell and suffered a ruptured disk in his back in November 1999 at the station, shortly after arriving to take care of the scientists and other researchers.

Thompson, who now lives in Harrisburg, Pa., had replaced Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott. She was evacuated the month before in a risky airlift after she discovered a breast tumor that was diagnosed as cancerous.

Thompson stuck it out, avoiding an emergency airlift, but called it the ``most painful thing I ever went through.''

Dr. Ronald Shemenski, suffering from a gall bladder ailment, was whisked out of the South Pole on an airlift Wednesday.

Nielsen said she had had mixed feelings about leaving behind the scientists and workers in her care as the only physician on duty there.

``Being there as a physician, you have a great sense of duty to your community,'' she said by telephone from North Carolina.

But what do you do when the doctor is sick?

At the South Pole, where the average annual mean temperature hovers around minus 50 Fahrenheit, there's no fooling around with Mother Nature. Sure there are plenty of medical supplies at the South Pole station, said Nielsen, but no surgeon, and no anesthesiologist.

Her diagnosis: ``A major medical problem would be difficult to treat. You could do it, but you really need a lot of support staff ... and we don't have that there.''

Everyone who comes to Amundsen-Scott to work at the South Pole is told upfront about the extreme risks, said Thompson.

``It's probably one of the riskiest places to live in the world, but everybody that's down there accepts those risks and wants to be there,'' he said.

While he said the problems were all unrelated _ a tumor, back trauma, and now an illness _ he wondered at such a ``run of bad luck'' made all the more unfortunate because it happened at the bottom of the world.