A rescue mission to the end of the earth

Derek Hunter Contributor
Font Size:

Nothing is more important than our health. We’re blessed in this country to have the greatest health care system in the world. Through emergency rooms, the insured and uninsured alike have access to that health care system, without regard to their ability to pay. But imagine being in the middle of nowhere, literally, and being in need of urgent medical attention. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does we spring into action and go to extraordinary lengths to preserve human life.

In fact, that’s what happened to Renee-Nicole Douceur. In August, she suffered what she thinks was a stroke in what is probably the most remote place on the planet, the South Pole.

Even in ideal conditions, traveling to the South Pole is a dangerous prospect, but those “ideal conditions” only exist in the “summer” months. The bad season in Antarctica runs from February through October. But in Antarctica, bad weather can happen at any time.

Flights to the continent depart from New Zealand, which is a 10-hour flight away. Over the course of those 10-hour flights, weather conditions in Antarctica can change tremendously. As Air National Guard Col. Ronnie Smith, a 12-year veteran of missions to the South Pole, told MSNBC last week, “You can get a good forecast and come into McMurdo [the Antarctic airbase] and think you’re landing, and suddenly there is 60-mph winds.”

Antarctica’s remoteness and unique weather conditions make it an ideal place to study the atmosphere. But the scientists stationed there know that the extreme weather means that they’re essentially stranded for most of the year, and that it’s unlikely that they’ll be rescued if they get into trouble. Nevertheless, they risk their lives in the name of science.

A number of groups have employees working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, but the National Science Foundation (NSF) is in charge of the facility, and it decides whether and when to send planes in for rescue missions. Due to poor weather conditions, the NSF decided against sending a rescue team to the South Pole immediately after Douceur’s stroke. She would have to wait until conditions improved. Understandably, she was scared, as was her family, but as soon as the weather window opened on Oct. 16, the NSF green-lighted a cargo plane to begin the 10-hour trip from New Zealand to the South Pole.

Landing on what amounts to a glacier is a risky prospect. Wheels are about as useful on ice as a knife is on Jell-O, so the planes don’t use wheels as their landing gear, they use skis. Just imagine the skill of landing a giant cargo plane on a sheet of ice on skis, not to mention the danger. It’s something out of a James Bond movie. Yet that’s what our pilots and flight crews do every time they bring cargo and personnel to and from the South Pole.

Whether Douceur actually suffered a stroke remains to be seen. But she is safe in civilization and receiving medical attention now. She knew the risks going in, and she accepted them. It’s a rare breed of person who risks her life in the name of science. It’s a rarer breed still who risks her life to save someone else who knowingly entered a situation from which return would be nearly impossible. But those are the sort of people who make up these rescue crews.

There’s a word for that. It’s “hero.”

Derek Hunter is a Washington-based writer and consultant. He can be stalked on Twitter @derekahunter.