NSF weighs options for treating South Pole patient

April 10, 2001

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering a range of options for providing medical assistance to an ailing doctor at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica.

Dr. Ronald S. Shemenski, 59, the station physician, recently passed a gall stone and suffered associated pancreatitis. Although he appears to be recovering and is undergoing a prophylactic course of antibiotic treatment, a relapse cannot be ruled out.

Through the use of telemedicine and ultrasound equipment at the Pole, a medical team in the United States was able to view images of the affected area and have concurred with the initial diagnosis. Although Dr. Shemenski appears to be recovering, medical experts from around the country are being consulted to determine the probability that complications might arise and to devise an optimal follow-up treatment. There is a possibility that the condition could develop into a life-threatening one.

In the United States, a typical treatment of the condition would involve surgery to remove the gall bladder. Under the relatively Spartan conditions at the South Pole station, medical experts consider surgery to be ill advised.

Dr. Shemenski is an employee of Raytheon Polar Services Corp. (RPSC), of Englewood, Colo. RPSC provides the logistics support to the U.S. science facilities in Antarctica under an NSF contract. Dr. Shemenski, was awarded a medical degree by the University of Tennessee. He specializes in family practice. He also holds a doctorate in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"NSF is deeply concerned about Dr. Shemenski's condition," said Rita Colwell, NSF director. "We are in the process of examining a range of options to determine the very best means of ensuring his health and safety."

Senior NSF officials, including the senior staff of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, are weighing several responses, including the use of ski-equipped civilian or military aircraft, to evacuate Dr. Shemenski and fly in another physician to replace him.

As a result, NSF has made a formal request to the U.S. Air Force to plan for a possible medical evacuation mission, if that option is chosen. Temperatures at this stage of the austral winter are near the point at which aircraft cannot operate safely. The combination of cold and darkness make air operations extremely hazardous.

The 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard, based in Scotia, N.Y., flies the world's only fleet of ski equipped C-130 "Hercules" transport aircraft and would perform a military evacuation.

Approximately 35 aircrew and maintenance personnel from the 109th will leave Stratton Air National Guard base by LC-130 for Washington's Dulles International Airport on the morning of Thursday, April 11 to board commercial aircraft for Christchurch, N.Z., the U.S. Antarctic Program's operational hub in New Zealand. Three ski-equipped LC-130s will also leave Stratton for Christchurch on Thursday. They will await further instructions in Christchurch.

Options other than a medical evacuation flight also being considered are continuing the treatment available at the station or airdropping additional supplies.

Fifty people are spending the austral winter at the pole. Raytheon employs 39 of them and eleven are scientists from various universities. All were required to pass a physical examination before deployment. Winter in Antarctica begins in late February and lasts through October. The "overwinter" staff at the station are variously employed in maintaining the cutting--edge science facilities at the Pole, including some of the world's most sophisticated radio telescopes; building a new station; and the maintenance of the existing station.

Normally, flights to the Pole begin in early November and end in mid- to late February. In October of 1999, the Air Guard successfully evacuated Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was then the station physician, in one of the earliest recorded flights to the South Pole. Dr. Nielsen was suffering from breast cancer.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), coordinates almost all U.S. scientific research in the Antarctic. NSF is an independent federal agency -- the only one that covers research in almost all fields of science and engineering.

For more information about science in Antarctica, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/media/99/fs_usap.htm".

For more information about the logistics of conducting science in the polar regions, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/media/01/fslogistics.htm.

For background on the Nielsen evacuation, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/media/99/fs_southpoledrop.htm.

For information on the C-130 "Hercules" aircraft, see: http://www.af.mil/news/factsheets/C_130_Hercules.html.

For information about the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command, see: http://public.scott.af.mil/hqamc/.
Editors: B-roll of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an animated locator map, and LC-130 aircraft in Antarctica are available. Contact Dena Headlee at 703-292-8070 or email dheadlee@nsf.gov.

National Science Foundation

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