A doctor who diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer in 1999 before she was rescued from the South Pole by the Air National Guard from the Stratton base in Glenville has died. She was 57.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who was stationed at a National Science Foundation facility in Antarctica at the time, died Tuesday at her home in Southwick, Mass., said her husband, Thomas FitzGerald. Her cancer had been in remission for several years but returned in August 2005.
Nielsen FitzGerald’s rescue made headlines around the world. She wrote a best-selling book about it titled “Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.” It was later made into a TV movie.
Nielsen FitzGerald was the only doctor among 41 staff at the foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station when she discovered a lump in her breast in early 1999.
She performed a biopsy on herself, with help from nonmedical staff at the facility, and gave herself chemotherapy for several months while waiting for the weather to improve so she could be taken to a medical facility.
When Nielsen FitzGerald’s condition worsened, the commander of the 109th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard decided to risk a rescue mission for her, said Lt. Col. Kim Terpening, speaking at a news conference in front of Stratton air base on Wednesday.
Terpening, a nurse with the airlift wing, led the three-person medical team that flew from Glenville to Antarctica to pick up Nielsen FitzGerald. The trip took four days.
The rescue mission was risky because the temperature at the time was minus 50 degrees, cold enough to turn aviation fuel into gel.
The 109th provides logistical support to the NSF-administered U.S. Antarctic Program annually and is the only airlift wing in the world with ski-equipped, four-engine LC-130s. It does not usually start its mission to Antarctica until November, when temperatures rise above minus 50 degrees. It then operates there for several months.
Terpening said the pilots of the LC-130 made two attempts to land at the polar station but aborted because of the temperature. Two days after their first attempt, they landed successfully.
“Everything was a normal mission except for the extreme cold. It takes a great deal of skill to do that,” she said.
Maj. George R. McAllister Jr. likened the rescue experience to landing a plane inside a pingpong ball: It’s dimly lit, white-on-white and traveling very fast.
McAllister and a crew of nine were aboard a 155,000-pound military cargo plane equipped with oversized skis, speeding through the frigid Antarctic air and whirling snow to find a runway marked only by black flags.
The navigator, Lt. Col. Bryan Fennessy, spotted the metal-lined flags on radar. Co-pilot Maj. David Koltermann strained for a glimpse out of the cockpit window.
They stayed long enough to take Nielsen FitzGerald on board and to drop off supplies and another doctor. The plane then used rockets to take off and head back to McMurdo Station on the Ross ice shelf. From there, the crew flew to New Zealand.
Six days after the Glenville-based crew accomplished the historic mission, McAllister and most of the others returned to a hero’s welcome and media attention in New York.
They received medals of honor from then-Gov. George Pataki, conducted interviews with national broadcast networks, radio stations and magazines, and heard there’s interest from Hollywood about a made-for-TV movie.
“Their bravery, their compassion, their genuine commitment to the welfare of others is a source of inspiration to all New Yorkers,” Pataki said.
Terpening said Wednesday of the media attention: “We had no idea the world was watching.” She said she and others never discussed Nielsen FitzGerald’s condition to protect her privacy. They only spoke about it after she wrote her book.
Terpening said she and Nielsen FitzGerald developed a friendship during the trip and stayed in touch for years afterwards. Nielsen FitzGerald visited Stratton air base several times, most recently last year for the wing’s 60th anniversary.
Nielsen FitzGerald contacted Terpening 10 weeks ago with news her cancer was terminal. “She was ready, she was upbeat and she was very determined,” Terpening said.
Terpening learned of Nielsen FitzGerald’s death Wednesday while flying back from Greenland, where the 109th trains annually for its polar mission. “I was sad. I knew she celebrated life. We should be so fortunate to do such wonderful things as she did,” Terpening said.
Nielsen FitzGerald’s cancer went into remission after multiple surgeries in the United States, including a mastectomy. The disease made her stronger, she said in November 2001.
“I would rather not have it. But the cancer is part of me. It’s given my life color and texture. Everyone has to get something. Some people are ugly, some people are stupid. I get cancer,” she said at a lecture in Denver.
Nielsen FitzGerald spent the last decade speaking around the world about the cancer and how it changed her life, and also worked as a roving ER doctor in hospitals all over the Northeast.
“She fought bravely, she was able to make the best of that life and circumstance gave her, and she had the most resilience I have ever seen in anyone,” said her husband. “She fought hard and she fought valiantly.” The couple would have celebrated their third anniversary next week.
In addition to her husband, the Ohio native and graduate of the University of Toledo Medical Center is survived by parents, Lorine and Phil, brothers Scott and Eric, and three children from a previous marriage, Julia, Ben and Alex.