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Published: Saturday, 10/18/2008

South Pole doctor says cancer spread

Dr. Jerri Nielsen, left, speaks with medical student Brooke Johnson after her talk at the UT college of medicine. Dr. Jerri Nielsen, left, speaks with medical student Brooke Johnson after her talk at the UT college of medicine.
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Dr. Jerri Nielsen removed a wig to show her bald head - a sign to all that her cancer has returned - while speaking yesterday to future doctors at the former Medical College of Ohio.

The physician, who received worldwide attention nine years ago this month after she was air rescued from Antarctica, told students she had a stroke just two weeks ago - and that the breast cancer she treated herself for at the South Pole had spread to her brain.

"There is no end to your life until your last breath. We can all do something for someone," Dr. Nielsen, 56, said.

She added before removing the wig: "It doesn't matter how or when you die. The only thing that matters is, did you ever live? Did you? I know the people in this room have and will."

Dr. Nielsen's stirring message to more than 175 medical students and faculty at the former MCO, now the University of Toledo college of medicine, was one of hope in the face of adversity.

A 1977 MCO graduate, she said she struggled while a student. And she said she knew the current students were struggling, too, but said they would persevere and succeed.

Dr. Nielsen made the standing-room only crowd burst into laughter with tales of the South Pole research station, where she was to be the lone physician for a year after becoming disenchanted with U.S. medical bureaucracy.

The former emergency room doctor had their rapt attention describing how she initially told no one about discovering the lump, knowing the winter weather was too bad for an evacuation anyhow, and methodically packaging medical supplies with instructions in case she died.

"I thought, 'You gambled and you lost. You're going to die,'•" Dr. Nielsen said.

Dr. Nielsen was at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in mid-1999 when the pain became too great and the then-recently divorced mother of three teenagers revealed her condition. Planes could not land on Antarctica during the southern hemisphere's winter, but chemotherapy drugs and other supplies for her treatment were dropped off three months before her Oct. 16, 1999, rescue.

A welder did a needle biopsy of Dr. Nielsen's tumor after she trained him using potatoes and other stand ins, and an information technology specialist was able to e-mail photos of slide samples to U.S. doctors. Dr. Kathy Miller at Indiana University's medical school agreed to consult from nearly 12,000 miles away, and the breast cancer researcher successfully treated Dr. Nielsen when she returned to the United States.

After being in remission for a half-dozen years, the fast-moving cancer returned about three years ago and spread to Dr. Nielsen's liver and bones, which didn't stop her from marrying Tom Fitzgerald, Dr. Nielsen said. She is undergoing radiation to treat the cancer in her brain, and she is taking a trip to India in two weeks, the western Massachusetts resident said after the speech.

Inspired by Dr. Nielsen's story, two UT medical students - Andrew Nyberg and Brooke Johnson - decided to create a scholarship in her honor. Donations are being accepted for the endowed fund and can be made before Dr. Nielsen's public talk at 6 p.m. today at Nitschke Hall Auditorium on UT's main campus.

"We were trying to find a way where everyone benefits," Ms. Johnson, a second-year medical student, said yesterday.

Dr. Nielsen, who was raised on a northeast Ohio farm, requested that award recipients come from a similar background. The annual scholarship will be awarded to graduating medical students who grew up in rural Ohio and plan to do their residency training in the state, preferably in emergency medicine.

Dr. Nielsen, who wrote a book called Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole, told medical students the notoriety she received from the Antarctica ordeal has been "ridiculous." Still, all doctors are esteemed because of the work they do, she said.

"This is going to happen to you also, perhaps in a little community in Ohio," Dr. Nielsen said. "You will become so important. You will affect so many people's lives - it's incredible, it really is."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:


or 419-724-6087.

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