Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald dies at 57; physician treated her own breast cancer at the South Pole
Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who was the only physician at an isolated South Pole research station when she diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer before being evacuated in a daring 1999 rescue, has died. She was 57.
FitzGerald died Tuesday at her home in Southwick, Mass., her family announced. Her cancer had been in remission but returned in 2005.
Newly divorced and seeking to shake up her life, the Ohio emergency-room doctor was spending the polar winter providing medical care to about 40 scientists, construction workers and others.
Shortly after her 47th birthday, in March, she found a small lump in her breast. It was just weeks after the last flight of the winter season had departed from the remote outpost and months before temperatures would warm enough for a plane to safely land.
“I thought I was dead,” she told CBS News in 2002. “I just thought, ‘I’m cooked.’ ”
Treatment would have to wait, she later recalled thinking, until her scheduled departure in November from the U.S. research station.
But the mass kept growing and by early June, FitzGerald was training her unorthodox, largely male medical team, which included a carpenter and a mechanic.
Using only ice and a local anesthetic, she performed her own biopsy with the help of a resident welder, who had practiced by sticking needles into an apple and a shriveled yam. Slides of the tissue sample were transmitted to U.S. specialists through a video link, but they were inconclusive.
Doctors monitoring her condition via satellite e-mail decided that she needed chemotherapy drugs and medical equipment. The only way to deliver them was through a rare midwinter airdrop, successfully completed in July by an Air Force jet in total darkness -- in a field lit only by fire.
After the National Science Foundation, which sponsors the Antarctic station, issued a news release about the mission, FitzGerald’s mother wrote to her that “Dan Rather’s lead story was your lump” and jokingly noted that the airdrop was described as a million-dollar mission, so “if this turns out to be benign, maybe you’d better lie about it.”
A high-tech tether to the outside world had also been delivered -- video conferencing that enabled breast-cancer specialists in Indiana to monitor the chemotherapy administered by colleagues. FitzGerald called the process “the Marx Brothers do chemotherapy.”
“We all have that in us to survive, and you will do whatever you need to,” FitzGerald said in the 2002 CBS interview. “So I just trained those people, and they did great.”
At first the tumor shrank, but then it grew again. By September, her doctors were urging her to evacuate, but she found herself not wanting to leave the frozen frontier.
After a bitter divorce that gave her husband custody of their three children, she saw her colleagues as her new family.
“I was so happy there,” FitzGerald told CBS. “I figured I was going to die anyway, and I’d rather stay in . . . my perfect home. The people are what make a home. . . . I learned about community. I learned about friendship. What an important thing to find out, even if it is the last year of your life.”
On Oct. 16, 1999, the New York Air National Guard conducted a dangerous but successful evacuation mission, withstanding almost 60-below temperatures to pick up FitzGerald and another injured team member and drop off another doctor. It was one of the earliest recorded flights in winter conditions to the South Pole.
After multiple surgeries and a mastectomy, FitzGerald’s cancer went into remission.
She told her story in a 2001 memoir that she co-wrote, “Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.” In 2003, it was made into a CBS TV movie starring Susan Sarandon.
“I am only five foot three,” FitzGerald wrote in the book’s opening pages. “But nobody has ever thought of me as small.”
She was born Jerri Lin Cahill on March 1, 1952, in Ohio, to Phil Cahill, a construction contractor, and his wife, Lorine.
After graduating from Ohio University, FitzGerald earned a medical degree from the University of Toledo.
At 23, she married a medical school classmate but divorced after 23 years.
In 2006, she married Thomas FitzGerald, whom she had met more than 20 years before while vacationing in the Amazon.
Over the last decade, she occasionally practiced medicine but mainly traveled the world as a motivational speaker, sharing a story headline writers called “the miracle on ice.”
In addition to her husband and parents, she is survived by her brothers, Scott and Eric, and her children, Julia, Ben and Alex.
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