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Oak Harbor doctor lands safely in Chile after South Pole rescue

An ailing Oak Harbor doctor stepped off a small plane in Chile yesterday, marking the end of his perilous trek from the sub-zero darkness of a South Pole research station in which he served as the facility's sole physician.

The Twin Otter aircraft carrying Dr. Ronald Shemenski landed under gray skies at Punta Arenas at 3:52 p.m. EDT. He said he never worried once about the flight, saying “these pilots were good” and that he rested on a makeshift bed atop a “couple of 55-gallon fuel drums.”

Family and friends in northwest Ohio were relieved and eagerly await his return home.

Dressed in jeans and a fur-lined parka, he told rescue organizers he would have preferred to tough it out at the pole: “I didn't want the crew to risk coming down there.” He said he feels fine, although he had mixed feelings about leaving the station in which he had been doctor to a 49-member crew since October.

“I'm disappointed. I'd like to be back,” Dr. Shemenski, 59, said.

The longtime physician in Oak Harbor, Port Clinton, and Oregon was evacuated from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station after suffering from the effects of acute pancreatitis. Although the doctor continues to feel better, the trip was undertaken in case the potentially life-threatening condition should recur.

The doctor felt better after passing a gallstone this month but needed medical attention not available at the remote station. The window of opportunity to evacuate him was quickly closing as the South Pole became enveloped in the 24-hour darkness and plunging temperatures of a polar winter.

Dr. Shemenski is expected to receive a medical checkup in Punta Arenas before heading to Denver on a commercial flight today for medical care and a decision on when to have surgery.

“If I get this medical condition taken care of, I'm hoping to go back next winter,” he said.

Although he won't be back in Ohio right away, family and friends of the well-known doctor were all smiles after learning of his safe landing.

“Well of course I'm happy,” said Dr. Shemenski's wife, Rebecca, from St. Ann Catholic Church in Fremont, at which she works. She declined to comment further on her husband's condition.

Dr. Shemenski's brother, Robert, said yesterday that the family had few fears about Dr. Shemenski's health but were concerned about the risky trip home.

“We knew he was doing better there at the pole, but there was always the concern and anguish about getting him out and the dangers that were involved,” Robert Shemenski said from his North Canton, Ohio, home. “We're extremely grateful he is back.”

Residents in Oak Harbor aren't sure how long he'll stay. Longtime friend and patient Bruce Winters said Dr. Shemenski is known to take on medical assignments in remote areas as far away as Australia and the Arctic Circle. Where his next assignment will take him is anybody's guess, he added.

“I hope to see him when he gets back, but with Ron he may be gone the next day, gone on his next adventure,” said Mr. Winters, an Ottawa County assistant prosecutor.

Two eight-seat Canadian Twin Otter aircraft were deployed April 14 to pick up the doctor. After weather delays, one crew made the 10-hour flight Tuesday from the Rothera research station on the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole, at which Dr. Shemenski was waiting.

On board was Dr. Betty Carlisle of South Bend, Wash., who replaced Dr. Shemenski as station physician. The crew remained overnight to rest and then began the trip back.

Everette Gwynn, assistant chief pilot of Canada-based Kenn Borek Air Ltd., said his crews have experience in snowy conditions. But a polar winter will put anyone to the test.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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