Worker at South Pole Has a Stroke, But a Rescue Would Be Too Dangerous

October 9th, 2011

This story makes me think of the Case of the Speluncean Explorers.

Renee-Nicole Douceur, the winter manager at the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole, was sitting at her desk on Aug. 27 when she suffered a stroke . . .

The station’s doctors quickly determined that Ms. Douceur should be removed as soon as possible from the isolated base, which has no M.R.I. or CT scanequipment, nor medicine to treat stroke victims, she said.

But that has not happened, and the situation has pitted Ms. Douceur and her family against Raytheon Polar Services, which manages the station through a contract with the National Science Foundation. Both Raytheon and the science foundation say that it would be too dangerous to send a rescue plane to the South Pole now and that Ms. Douceur’s condition is not life-threatening.

“During the winter period, extremely cold temperatures and high winds make an extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew,” said Jon Kasle, a Raytheon spokesman, “and such an extraction is considered only in life-threatening conditions.”

Ms. Douceur, 58, of Seabrook, N.H., is in stable condition but said she had partial vision loss in both eyes. She is on medical leave from her job and spends part of every day on an oxygen therapy device that helps her breathe in the high altitude, she said.

The first cargo flight of the spring is to leave Oct. 17  — weather permitting — from the South Pole for McMurdo Station, on the Antarctic coast. From there, Ms. Douceur would fly to New Zealand for medical attention.

To Ms. Douceur and Sydney Raines, her niece, that is not soon enough. Last month, Ms. Raines started a campaign to put pressure on the National Science Foundation and Raytheon.

“My question back to them is, By what standard is a stroke considered a nonemergency?” said Ms. Raines, who was raised by Ms. Douceur.