Mercy flight heads to end of the Earth

Medicine: The Air Force undertakes a risky mission to drop medical supplies to a woman at the South Pole.

July 08, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

At least two Air Force planes were to leave the West Coast today on a risky mission to carry medicine -- and hope -- to a woman at the South Pole who has found a potentially cancerous lump in her breast.

A medical evacuation is impossible in the bitter, 80-below-zero cold. The airmen will have to penetrate the storms and darkness of the Antarctic winter and drop the drugs and other medical gear by parachute.

"People were really motivated to do this because it's about saving a life," said Capt. Bill Barksdale, a spokesman for the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base in Washington state. "We're willing to do whatever it takes to do this in a safe manner."

The 47-year-old woman is part of a 41-member U.S. scientific team that has been hunkered down at the pole since Feb. 19. High winds, constant darkness and a rough, snow-packed airstrip will prevent resumption of air operations there until November.

Scientists and support personnel have only intermittent telephone and e-mail contact with the outside world -- about five hours a day.

Because of the isolation, everyone going to the National Science Foundation's three Antarctica stations must pass a medical screening designed to catch problems that could lead to serious medical emergencies.

The woman at the South Pole Station passed her screening -- including a mammogram -- before she left for the pole, said Valerie Carroll, a spokeswoman for the patient's employer, Antarctic Support Associates.

Unexpected problems

"There is always a chance something will come up," said NSF spokeswoman Mary Hanson. "That's why we have to be ready to respond."

Citing doctor-patient confidentiality, NSF officials declined yesterday to discuss the unnamed patient's diagnosis, or the nature of the medication being sent to her.

The woman has declined all interviews, Hanson said, choosing privacy "in what is a very personal process."

She is described only as an employee of ASA, a Colorado-based contractor that provides logistical support to NSF scientists in Antarctica. She is one of 10 women at the South Pole for this austral winter.

After the woman reported her problem in June, the lone physician at the pole consulted by telephone and e-mail with doctors in Colorado and at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland.

"Some diagnostic information has been made available," said NSF spokesman Peter West. "They sent images and slides by telecommunications. That has enabled them to decide on a course of treatment."

The treatment was described by the NSF only as "appropriate to maintain her health and safety."

Possible treatment

Dr. Neil B. Friedman, director of the breast center at Mercy Hospital, said doctors could send the drug tamoxifen if they strongly suspect the woman has cancer.

"I can see where they would say, `We're going to put you on tamoxifen for a few months.' " said Friedman, who is not involved in the case. "It would be the presumption that this is a cancer and it's not going to do any harm," he said.

Tamoxifen, a drug that helps slow early cancers, might stop the tumor's growth until the woman can be examined at a more sophisticated medical facility.

In addition to medications, the mercy flight will deliver more sophisticated teleconferencing gear. The station staff will also find fresh fruits and vegetables and mail among the supplies.

Hanson said the woman "appreciates the support and concern received from her friends and colleagues, and the efforts being made on her behalf."

It will be a complex mission.

About 1 p.m. EDT today, Barksdale said, a four-engine C-141 Starlifter jet with air and ground crews totaling more than 20 people will take off from McChord Air Force Base and fly to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

At Hickam, they will be joined by at least one KC-10 aerial tanker and its crew from Travis Air Force Base in California. (A second tanker was being considered.) Together, the jets will fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, where all aboard will get 36 hours' rest.

No room for error

On Sunday, if weather conditions are favorable, the Starlifter and tanker will head south again. During the 6 1/2-hour flight to the pole, the tanker will refuel the Starlifter, then turn back to Christchurch.

From that moment, the Starlifter crew will be on its own. The aircraft can't land on the continent because it is not equipped with skis. There are no other airfields to which the crew can divert in an emergency. If the weather turns bad, or anything goes wrong with the plane, their only option is to return to Christchurch and try again.

"If something happened and the jet went down, it would be a real challenge to pull anyone out," said Barksdale.

Drops once routine

Midwinter supply drops were once routine in Antarctica. "Until four years ago, air drops were made to resupply fresh veggies, mail and other supplies," said Carroll. But better planning and improved communications have enabled the NSF to end the risky practice.

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