The National Science Foundation (NSF) is
considering a range of options for providing
medical assistance to an ailing doctor
at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station,
Dr. Ronald S. Shemenski, 59, the station
physician, recently passed a gall stone
and suffered associated pancreatitis.
Although he appears to be recovering and
is undergoing a prophylactic course of
antibiotic treatment, a relapse cannot
be ruled out.
Through the use of telemedicine and ultrasound
equipment at the Pole, a medical team
in the United States was able to view
images of the affected area and have concurred
with the initial diagnosis. Although Dr.
Shemenski appears to be recovering, medical
experts from around the country are being
consulted to determine the probability
that complications might arise and to
devise an optimal follow-up treatment.
There is a possibility that the condition
could develop into a life-threatening
In the United States, a typical treatment
of the condition would involve surgery
to remove the gall bladder. Under the
relatively Spartan conditions at the South
Pole station, medical experts consider
surgery to be ill advised.
Dr. Shemenski is an employee of Raytheon
Polar Services Company (RPSC), of Englewood,
Colo. RPSC provides the logistics support
to the U.S. science facilities in Antarctica
under an NSF contract. Dr. Shemenski,
was awarded a medical degree by the University
of Tennessee. He specializes in family
practice. He also holds a doctorate in
materials science from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.
"NSF is deeply concerned about Dr. Shemenski's
condition," said Rita Colwell, NSF director.
"We are in the process of examining a
range of options to determine the very
best means of ensuring his health and
Senior NSF officials, including the senior
staff of NSF's Office of Polar Programs,
are weighing several responses, including
the use of ski-equipped civilian or military
aircraft, to evacuate Dr. Shemenski and
fly in another physician to replace him.
As a result, NSF has made a formal request
to the U.S. Air Force to plan for a possible
medical evacuation mission, if that option
is chosen. Temperatures at this stage
of the austral winter are near the point
at which aircraft cannot operate safely.
The combination of cold and darkness make
air operations extremely hazardous.
The 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air
National Guard , based in Scotia, N.Y.,
flies the world's only fleet of ski equipped
C-130 "Hercules" transport aircraft and
would perform a military evacuation.
Approximately 35 aircrew and maintenance
personnel from the 109th will leave Stratton
Air National Guard base by LC-130 for
Washington's Dulles International Airport
on the morning of Thursday, April 11 to
board commercial aircraft for Christchurch,
N.Z., the U.S. Antarctic Program's operational
hub in New Zealand. Three ski-equipped
LC-130s will also leave Stratton for Christchurch
on Thursday. They will await further instructions
Options other than a medical evacuation
flight also being considered are continuing
the treatment available at the station
or airdropping additional supplies.
Fifty people are spending the austral winter
at the pole. Raytheon employs 39 of them
and eleven are scientists from various
universities. All were required to pass
a physical examination before deployment.
Winter in Antarctica begins in late February
and lasts through October. The "overwinter"
staff at the station are variously employed
in maintaining the cutting-edge science
facilities at the Pole, including some
of the world's most sophisticated radio
telescopes; building a new station; and
the maintenance of the existing station.
Normally, flights to the Pole begin in
early November and end in mid-to-late
February. In October of 1999, the Air
Guard successfully evacuated Dr. Jerri
Nielsen, who was then the station physician,
in one of the earliest recorded flights
to the South Pole. Dr. Nielsen was suffering
from breast cancer.
The National Science Foundation (NSF),
through the United States Antarctic Program
(USAP), coordinates almost all U.S. scientific
research in the Antarctic. NSF is an independent
federal agency -- the only one that covers
research in almost all fields of science
For More Information
All photos: Diamond
Western / National Science Foundation
Workers at NSF's McMurdo
Station in Antarctica groomed skiways
and made other preparations to receive
aircraft in case a decision is made to
send New York Air National Guard aircraft
to evacuate Dr. Ronald Shemenski, the
physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole
McMurdo Station on Ross
Island is roughly 800 air miles from the
All photos: Diamond
Western/National Science Foundation