Dr. Jerri Fitzgerald
This is the very sad ending of an extraordinary life. Some of you will remember Dr. FItzgerald who diagnosed and then treated her own breast cancer while working for the National Science Foundation at the South Pole. What a story and what a woman.
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June 25, 2009
Jerri FitzGerald, Who Treated Herself at South Pole, Dies at
By DENNIS HEVESI
Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, a doctor who treated herself for breast cancer for months while stationed at the South Pole in 1999 and then when the weather thawed a bit was flown out in a daring rescue mission, died Tuesday at her home in Southwick, Mass. She was 57. The cause was breast cancer, which had recurred in 2005, her husband, Thomas, said.
Dr. FitzGerald's ordeal was headline news in 1999. Known then as Dr. Nielsen, her name from her first marriage, she had been through a bitter divorce and was exhausted by long hours at an emergency room in Olean, N.Y., when she spotted a want ad in a medical journal. It offered an opportunity for escape: a
ot;margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Georgia;">doctor was needed at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole.
Vetted for her ability to handle procedures as varied as trauma surgery and routine dental work, Dr. FitzGerald was accepted for the job and arrived at the pole in early 1999. The dilapidated station was overcrowded because a construction crew was replacing the 25-year-old dome that had been the base for
Antarctic research since 1975. There were 41 people there, not the usual 27. Temperatures plunging past 100 degrees below zero, which could turn airplane fuel to jelly, soon made flights in or out impossible.
In late May, Dr. FitzGerald discovered a lump in her right breast. Through her supervisors at the science foundation, she made e-mail contact with Dr. Kathy Miller, an oncologist in Indianapolis. Using e-mail, computer graphics and satellite imaging, Dr. Miller guided Dr. FitzGerald through months of improvised diagnosis and treatment.
Because Dr. FitzGerald was the only person with medical training at the pole, she needed help from her untrained colleagues.
A welder who had practiced by poking a needle into a shriveled apple helped Dr. FitzGerald perform a biopsy by aspirating tissue from her breast. A maintenance worker prepared the slides for video transmission and a computer technician synchronized the transmission with a satellite passing overhead.
In the frigid weather, six crates of chemotherapy equipment and other medical supplies were airdropped in. But with the side effects of chemotherapy made worse by the cold, Dr. FitzGerald became weak and disoriented.
By October, glimmers of hope came with the first hints of the Antarctic spring. Temperatures that had dropped to minus 118 were now at about minus 60.
On Oct. 15, an LC-130 Hercules jet from the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard equipped with both skis and wheels landed at the pole. Twenty-two minutes later, Dr. FitzGerald was on her way home.
In 2001, Dr. FitzGerald's book, "Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole," written with Maryanne Vollers, was published by Miramax Books/Hyperion. Two years later, Susan Sarandon played Dr. FitzGerald in the CBS-TV movie "Ice Bound."
Jerri Lin Cahill was born in Salem, Ohio, on March 1, 1952, one of three children of Phillip and Lorine Roesti Cahill. She graduated from Ohio University in 1974 and the Medical College of Ohio in 1978.
Besides her husband and her parents, she is survived by her two brothers, Scott and Eric; and three children from her first marriage, Julia, Ben and Alex.
The FitzGeralds, who first became friends in 1986 while on a tour in the Amazon, were married three years ago. Despite her long battle with cancer, Mr. FitzGerald said Wednesday, his wife never lost her "adventure bug."
In the last 10 years, sometimes as a speaker on cruise ships, he said, "she's been to China; Vietnam; Turkey; South Africa; Australia; and Antarctica five times."
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company