Renee-Nicole Douceur, a researcher who had a stroke while at… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Working late into the night at a research center at the South Pole, Renee-Nicole Douceur thought she was just tired when her vision suddenly became blurred.
Sleep did nothing to improve her eyesight, and a doctor at the center at first thought she had torn a retina. But further diagnosis pointed to a stroke and the beginning of an ordeal where the closest hospital would be nine weeks and a 12-hour plane ride away.
"I was very concerned for my health," Douceur said Friday. "I didn't know if I was a ticking time bomb."
The ordeal would take Douceur through a sea of emotions and weeks of wondering what was going on with her body. She would see doctors in New Zealand and ultimately arrive in Baltimore — and a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Her doctor at Hopkins, Paul Nyquist, said Friday that he expects Douceur to make a full recovery. She could be released from the hospital Saturday so she can return home to New Hampshire to continue physical therapy.
Douceur said the same personality traits that landed her at the South Pole are what helped her get through a predicament that might have overwhelmed others.
The woman who became a nuclear engineer — despite her father's push to make her an astronaut — is an adventurous soul who has traveled the world, dog-sledding in Canada and sky-diving in other parts of the world. She's tough and logical.
Going to the South Pole was a dream come true. Like all the other researchers, Douceur knew she'd be living in tough conditions and unable to leave for months because of the extreme weather. She didn't fret over things such as what might happen if she became sick.
The 58-year-old still wore the brown overalls, black turtleneck sweater and boots that kept her warm in the South Pole as she described the ordeal that began while she was working on her computer and half the screen became blurry.
The normally healthy Douceur said the stroke took her by surprise but that she never felt scared.
At first, Douceur said she was told an airplane could evacuate her to a hospital in two weeks.
After she was told it might be much longer before weather conditions would allow a plane to land, she became more worried. Her symptoms had worsened. She was forgetting things, calling people by the wrong names and confusing words.
She started administering her own physical therapy. She began doing writing exercises in her room — keeping a journal on her recovery to help exercise her brain. A doctor at the station also pulled a treatment regimen from the Internet, Douceur said.
"I decided I wasn't going to let this beat me," she said.
Douceur says her employer, Raytheon Polar Services, did not do enough to get her out of the region more quickly.
Her plight sparked a nationwide protest to persuade her employer and the National Science Foundation, a government agency that heads research missions in Antarctica, to send a plane for her so she could get medical treatment. More than 1,000 people signed a petition.
Raytheon and the NSF said Douceur's safety was their first priority but that weather conditions made it unsafe for a plane to fly in immediately. The fuel in a plane turns to a gel at temperatures below minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, an NSF spokeswoman said.
"When we had the first opportunity to have a flight come in, she was evacuated," said Deborah Wing, a spokeswoman for the foundation.
Raytheon said NSF ultimately makes the final decision on safety conditions. NSF said it worked with Raytheon on that decision.
"As widely reported, extremely cold temperatures and high winds at the South Pole station make a winter extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew, and we are grateful to the NSF for its decision to transport Ms. Douceur on the first available flight," Raytheon officials said in a statement.
Douceur first received treatment in New Zealand, where she underwent an MRI. She arrived at Hopkins this week for further evaluation.
Nyquist said she suffered a small stroke, known as a lacunar stroke, that affected the temporal lobe in the brain, which plays an important role in speech and vision.
"It was interfering with her ability to communicate," he said.
Nyquist said they'll never know whether the length of time before she was treated impeded her recovery. He also said Douceur didn't have many risk factors for a stroke — she had normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and didn't have diabetes.
Nyquist said the station's altitude — which is high because of the thickness of the ice upon which it is built — might have contributed to the stroke. The low oxygen level triggers an increase in the number of red blood cells, raising the likelihood of a stroke, he said.
Douceur still has a hard time focusing and can't remember some things.
But she said she is grateful that the damage wasn't worse.
Douceur said she would like to go back to the South Pole but doesn't know whether her health will allow it. Patients who have had a stroke are at risk for another one, Nyquist said.
She hopes to sky-dive again — although the doctors in New Zealand told her to wait six months. She also can't wait to get home and start traveling the country in her RV.
"I am a very lucky person," she said.