Nowhere To Go For Help

A seven-and-a-half-hour flight to the most isolated outpost on the planet is a tough mission. But once the Air Force C-141 Starlifter dropped its cargo into the bitterly cold Antarctic night, the flight crew got to turn around and go home. Matters aren't so simple for the 41 scientists, technicians and support staff wintering over at America's Amundsen-Scott research base at the South Pole, where winter temperatures average 80 degrees below zero. For them, there'll be no getting out for months.

The South Pole team knew there'd be no physical link to the outside world between February and October, and they all went through rigorous testing to reduce the chance of medical surprises during their isolation. But this June, a 47-year-old woman at the base discovered a lump in one of her breasts. It might be a benign cyst, in which case treatment could be put off until the end of the season. If it's cancerous, however, it could metastasize before evacuation becomes possible. Following the woman's wishes, the National Science Foundation, which runs the base, has not released her identity. But The New York Times reported last week that she is the station's only medical doctor, and will have to treat herself. So along with laboratory equipment and drugs, the emergency airdrop included videoconferencing gear. With the new communications set up, says Karl Erb, the director of the Office of Polar Programs at the NSF, stateside specialists will be able to confer with her "almost as if she was in their office."

The delivery included unspecified drugs, which she has already started taking. And apparently the patient has performed a biopsy, pushing a hollow needle into her breast to remove a small plug of tissue. Using materials included in the airdrop, that tissue sample would be prepared and stained for microscopic analysis. Digital microscope images of the lump cells can be beamed back to pathologists in the United States, who will use them to determine if cancer is present, and how aggressive it might be. Treatment options may include waiting for evacuation, or initiating hormone or chemotherapy. In the worst-case scenario, station personnel could perform emergency surgery to remove the lump. If that happens, says Dr. Douglas Perednia of the Association of Telemedicine Service Providers, "there's no inherent reason why the surgery couldn't be directed by a surgeon in the U.S."

As the Starlifter headed back to the relative warmth of a New Zealand winter last week, the South Pole crew was no closer to home. But thanks to the newly delivered technology, the isolation, if not the cold, was a little less intense.