It was minus 63 at the south pole when the go-ahead came through, at 9:27 Saturday morning--Friday afternoon in the United States. About 870 miles away at McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast, Maj. George R. McAllister of the New York Air National Guard revved up the engines on his specially outfitted LC-130 transport, the only large plane in the world meant to fly in and out of the Pole. The planes are not supposed to land or take off below minus 58, but officers were gambling that the temperature would rise enough during the three-hour flight to make the round trip possible. In the 42 years that there has been a permanent American research base at the pole, this was the earliest in the Antarctic spring that a flight in has been attempted. For the 41 men and women wintering there, the start of spring flying season means fresh supplies, visitors and, for many, a flight home to resume their lives. For one in particular, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the base physician who has been treating herself for breast cancer, it means a chance to save her life. In an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK a few days before the rescue, she wrote: "I am waiting to get off the Ice and find out what is going on. We are isolated here, as you know. I am sick and would like to go to the hospital and learn my fate."
Nielsen, 47, had been waiting for a plane for more than three months, ever since she discovered a small lump in her breast. In a risky midwinter polar flyover, an Air Force crew in July dropped biopsy equipment and a supply of chemotherapy drugs; she performed the biopsy on herself, made and photographed slide samples and e-mailed the results to doctors in the States. The exact diagnosis has not been made public, but a source at the National Science Foundation, which runs the polar station, said that after she completed one round of chemotherapy her doctors advised her to begin a second; on Sept. 29, NSF officials asked the Air Force to attempt an evacuation "at the earliest safe opportunity." (Most years, the planes take up their station at McMurdo on Oct. 25.) Nielsen's mother described her daughter as weak, worried and bald from the drugs she's been taking.
But help is not far off now; after spending just 22 minutes on the ground, the plane took off again with Nielsen on board for McMurdo. From there she was flown to New Zealand for a short stopover before heading home to the States. The NSF refused to say where she would be treated. (Nielsen, who is from Ohio, was recently divorced and has three teenage children.) One encouraging note comes from a large study, published last year, of women who, like Nielsen, had chemotherapy for breast cancer before surgery, reversing the usual course of treatment. It didn't affect their survival rate--but because the chemotherapy shrank the tumor first, fewer of them needed to have an entire breast removed. As for the colleagues she's leaving behind, her replacement flew down on the same plane that took her out. As it happens, he's a man.