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Originally published Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Obituary

Doctor fought cancer while stuck in Antarctica

Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer before a dramatic rescue from the South Pole, has died at...

The Associated Press

BOSTON — Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer before a dramatic rescue from the South Pole, has died at 57.

Her husband, Thomas FitzGerald, said she died Tuesday at their home in Southwick, Mass. Her cancer returned in August 2005, he said Wednesday.

She was the only doctor among 41 workers at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter 1999 when she discovered a lump in her breast.

"I got really sick," she said in a 2003 interview. "I had great big lymph nodes under my arm. I thought I would die."

Rescue was out of the question. Because of the extreme weather, the station is closed to the outside world for the winter. She treated the disease herself, with help from colleagues she trained and U.S.-based doctors she stayed in touch with via satellite e-mail.

She performed a biopsy on herself with the help of staff.

A machinist helped her with her IV and test slides, and a welder helped with chemotherapy.

She treated herself with anti-cancer drugs delivered during a mid-July 1999 airdrop by a U.S. Air Force plane in blackout and freezing conditions.

In a headline-grabbing rescue, she was lifted by the Air National Guard that October, one of the earliest flights ever into the station as it became warm enough — 58 degrees below zero — to make the risky flight.

Back in the United States, she had multiple surgeries, including a mastectomy.

Dr. Nielsen FitzGerald never lost her adventurous spirit and returned to Antarctica several more times. "She had incredible zest and enthusiasm for life," said her husband, whom she first met 23 years ago when they were on vacation in the Amazon.

The couple would have celebrated their third anniversary next week.

She documented her ordeal in the best-selling book "Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole." It was later made into a TV movie.

Dr. Nielsen FitzGerald spent the last decade speaking around the world about the cancer and how it changed her life, and she worked as a roving ER doctor in hospitals all over the Northeast.

Besides her husband, the Youngstown, Ohio-area native and graduate of the University of Toledo Medical School is survived by her parents, two brothers and three children from a previous marriage.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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