Physician casts sights on return to S. Pole

`I had what I thought was the flu, but so did everybody else,' says Dr. Ronald Shemenski, at home in Oak Harbor.
`I had what I thought was the flu, but so did everybody else,' says Dr. Ronald Shemenski, at home in Oak Harbor.

OAK HARBOR - Dr. Ronald Shemenski has flown his own plane to Alaska and back. He's tended patients in the Australian Outback. And he's lived in a research station under 20 feet of snow at the South Pole.

Always in search of adventure, the physician has spent most of the past eight years away from his small brick home on the Portage River, but he can't let go of northwest Ohio entirely.

“This is a nice hideaway. When I had my practice here, my office was right across the river,” Dr. Shemenski said, pointing out of his waterfront gazebo in Salem Township toward the river's north shore. “I probably should get a condo somewhere, but I can't bring myself to sell this place.”

Dr. Shemenski, 59, received international attention last month when he was rescued from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station after developing gallbladder problems. Doctors preparing him for surgery in Denver early this month found he had suffered a slight heart attack at the South Pole, and they performed surgery to unclog two arteries.

The discovery, Dr. Shemenski said, stunned him.

“In the summer down there, in December, I had what I thought was the flu, but so did everybody else. ... and that didn't even slow me down to miss work. It was a total shock.”

About 10 days ago, he came home to rest and visit relatives.

But his stay at home will be a brief one: On Saturday, he'll be flown back to Denver to undergo gallbladder surgery. Afterward, he'll spend the summer as medical director for Raytheon Polar Services, the company that sent him to the South Pole in the fall.

If all goes well, Dr. Shemenski hopes to be assigned in October for a four-month stint at the McMurdo Station, an Antarctic research facility less remote than Amundsen-Scott.

For Dr. Shemenski, McMurdo is a stepping-stone to his real goal: returning to the South Pole for a year-long stay starting in October, 2002.

“I'd like to get back to the ice, but this is the only choice I'm going to have if I'm going to do that,” he said. “I have to have a year of good health so I can go back to the South Pole.”

Dr. Shemenski's heart surgery means he can't fly his four-seater Maule bush plane for six months. “Flying has always been my first love,” he said. “I've always tried to work my other jobs into flying.”

He accomplished that when he left his local practice in 1993, after 12 years, and went to work as a traveling physician, flying to Maine, Nevada, and Alaska. “I've been on the road since then,” he said. “It was a hard thing to do, with all the patients and friends I had to leave.”

Dr. Shemenski, who has no children, is separated from his wife, Rebecca, who lives in Fremont.

A self-described “country person” who avoids the limelight, he noted with irony that his trip to the South Pole turned the world's attention on him.

“I went down there for peace and quiet,” he said. “I just wanted to get away from it all.”