Matt Gacek in this article

Ailing doctor rescue to leave frozen continent

April 26, 2001
Web posted at: 10:42 a.m. EDT (1442 GMT)

ROTHERA, Antarctica (CNN) -- An ailing doctor was set to leave frozen Antarctica Thursday on the next leg of his dramatic rescue from the South Pole.

A plane carrying Dr. Ronald S. Shemenski was due to depart from the British Antarctic Research station at Rothera en route to Punta Arenas, Chile.

The twin-engine propeller plane left the Amundsen-Scott Station at the Pole at 12:47 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, arriving at Rothera around 8:52 p.m. EDT.

Shemenski rested overnight at Rothera, Raytheon officials said, before the six-hour flight to Punta Arenas, where he was to board a commercial plane to travel to Denver.

Raytheon Polar Services provides support services for the station through a contract with the National Science Foundation.

Shemenski, 59, recently suffered a bout of gallstones and pancreatitis. He was the only physician among 50 people at the Amundsen-Scott Station, where the National Science Foundation conducts astronomy and astrophysics research.

While Shemenski is doing well now, U.S. officials decided to bring him back to the United States for treatment in order to avoid further attacks, which could be life threatening.

The plane dropped off a replacement for Shemenski at the polar station: Dr. Betty Carlisle, a veteran of two earlier Antarctic missions, will remain at Amundsen-Scott until the Antarctic winter ends in early November.

A crew of three, Captains Matt Gacek and Tony Szekely, Flight Engineer Peter Brown, plus Carlisle, made the 1,346-mile (2,153-kilometer) flight from Rothera to the pole on Tuesday -- a dangerous and rare event in the Antarctic winter.

Poor visibility and extreme cold limit most air travel to a six-month stretch from October through March, before the onset of the Antarctic winter. In April, the South Pole typically receives just four hours of sunlight per day. High winds can drive temperatures down to -140 degrees Fahrenheit (-96 Celsius).

"As far as I know, this is unprecedented," Valentine said. "The only thing that was close to it was when they took Jerri Nielsen out."

Nielsen was the Amundsen-Scott base physician until October 1999, when she was flown out after discovering a lump in her breast that required treatment. In that case, Valentine said, "The weather was getting better day by day, where now it's getting worse day by day."

Shemenski, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, holds a medical degree from the University of Tennessee and a doctorate in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had been the polar base's physician since November, Valentine said.

Carlisle, his replacement, has done two previous tours at Amundsen-Scott, in 1992-93 and 1995-96.

Three doctors in a row have now encountered medical problems during the Antarctic winter. In addition to Nielsen and Shemenski, Dr. Robert Thompson had to be evacuated from the base last year after he injured a disk in his back.

"The odds of this happening are just too high to calculate, and I really can't explain it," Thompson said. "It's strange. It makes you think of a jinx."

National Correspondent Gary Tuchman, Enviromental Correspondent Natalie Pawelski and Writer Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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