CONCORD, N.H. – An engineer who has been trying to leave a South Pole research station since suffering what she thought was a stroke in late August could be on a plane out as early as Friday.
Renee Douceur, of Seabrook, a coastal town of 9,000 residents about 40 miles southeast of Concord, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she expects to fly out on a cargo plane scheduled to arrive from the United Kingdom's Rothera Base in Antarctica.
"Right now, they think there's a weather window, but the problem is that as the weather window opens up at Rothera Base, here at South Pole the weather is going to start to degrade," she said. "There's an opening, but if they don't make that opening then it's probably going to be pushed on to next week before I get a chance."
Douceur, 58, is the station manager for Raytheon Polar Services Co., which has a contract with the National Science Foundation's South Pole research station. She has been asking for an emergency evacuation since Aug. 26, when she had what she and on-site doctors believed was a stroke, but officials denied her request, saying that sending a rescue plane was too dangerous and that her condition wasn't life-threatening.
Douceur, who has worked at the South Pole for about a year, said Tuesday that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital she contacted for a second opinion told her that she should have been evacuated weeks ago and that they believe something other than a stroke — possibly a tumor — may be causing her vision, speech and memory problems. She said she's worried about how flying in a non-pressurized plane will affect her but she doesn't want to wait several more weeks until larger, pressurized aircraft arrive.
"I've always thought I was a tough cookie, a calm gal in the face of adversity, but now, that's making me rethink this," she said. "I'm actually kind of jittery ... but I cannot wait any longer."
After initially having half her field of vision vanish, Douceur said she can now read if she concentrates on just a few words at a time. She sometimes jumbles words and has had trouble remembering simple lists of words during medical evaluations. When she struggled to count backward from 100 by various multiples, a doctor suggested she brush up on sixth-grade math, she said.
"Here I am, this highly educated nuclear engineer that took all different advanced math through my college years, and now my doctor's telling me to read a sixth-grade book?" she said. "My intellect has been a key aspect of my entire life, and I'm not going to let myself get degraded to a sixth-grade level."
Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said Tuesday that the decision to evacuate Douceur rested with the National Science Foundation, not Raytheon. In a statement, the company said its medical team at the South Pole is highly experienced in providing all levels of medical care and can consult with peers in the United States through telemedicine.
"During the winter period, extremely cold temperatures and high winds make an extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew, and such an extraction is considered only in life-threatening conditions," the company said.
In a statement, a National Science Foundation spokeswoman said the agency must balance the potential benefit of an evacuation against the possibility of harm for the patient, the flight crew and workers on the ground.
"We are continuing to monitor the patient's condition closely and are prepared to consider alternative courses of action if merited by a change in condition, as determined by medical experts," the spokeswoman said.
In a letter to New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen last month, an NSF official said those who work at the station are fully informed about the hostile climate and extreme conditions. Transportation during the winter months is extremely risky given the low temperature, severe weather, hostile terrain and limited rescue personnel, wrote Kelly Falkner, the agency's deputy director of polar programs.
In October 1999, a U.S. Air Force plane made one of the earliest flights ever into the station when it rescued Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who had diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer for months before her evacuation. After she had multiple surgeries in the United States, the cancer went into remission, but it returned. Nielsen FitzGerald died in 2009 at age 57.
Douceur said she understands the risks involved in arranging an evacuation but is angry that the decision to deny her request was made so quickly.
"This is absolutely wrong," she said. "They are making decisions basically on money."
Associated Press writer Dan Elliott in Denver contributed to this report.
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