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AMERICAN MORNING

South Pole Rescue

Aired September 15, 2003 - 08:35   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And now to the dramatic attempt to rescue a seriously ill staffer from a research station at the South Pole. Weather conditions in Antarctica grounded a flight yesterday. Another attempt at a polar landing could come today. Dr. Jerri Nielsen knows a little something about South Pole rescue missions. You might recall she was evacuated from a polar research station back in 1999 after she was able to diagnose her own breast cancer and try to help herself treat it. And Dr. Nielsen joins us this morning from Raleigh, North Carolina with a little insight for us.
Dr. Nielsen, good morning. It's nice to see you.

JERRI NIELSEN, AUTHOR, "ICEBOUND": Hello, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about this attempt. The first one, as we know, was scrapped. They're going to try again today. Give me a sense of the weather conditions in the area right now.

NIELSEN: The weather conditions are terrible. I understand they have three quarters of a mile visibility only in a snowstorm. The winds at this time of year are very erratic and difficult to predict.

O'BRIEN: When you were rescued, similar situation in that the rescue was incredibly risky, not just to you, but also the people who were coming out to try to save you. What was it like to know that someone was on their way, and you were to some degree putting their lives at risk?

NIELSEN: That was terrible. I asked that if there was any chance that I wasn't going to survive, I didn't want them to come. And originally I didn't want them to come at all. But it was made obvious to me that everyone at that station is necessary, and they needed a doctor. But I believe strongly that to rescue another human being, especially a stranger, is the highest form of humanity. And when someone does that, their life's forever changed. And the victim actually gives them a wonderful gift.

O'BRIEN: There is not very much known about the man who is at the station right now, except that he is, as doctors describe him, very sick, although apparently still at work. Looks like he might need surgery down the road, which I guess is the thought behind getting him out as soon as possible. Give me a sense of logistically what it was like to get you out of the station.

NIELSEN: Very difficult. First of all, the station isn't ready for an airplane to land. There are terrible drifts from the winter storms. And so they have to clear that in order to have a runway. And there's a great deal of work, because even the equipment doesn't run, so they have to work for days and days to get the equipment to run. And then after that, of course, the courage of the pilots and the skill of the pilots is what you depend upon.

O'BRIEN: I've got to tell you, Dr. Nielsen, it's so nice to see you looking well and healthy. I read your book. I thought it was wonderful. But when you heard the news that somebody else was stuck up there and had to get out, what went through your mind? Did it bring everything back to you?

NIELSEN: Yes, but at the same time, the people who go to the South Pole know the risk that they're undertaking. It's part of the charm of the place. And I'm sure I know one thing about this man, and it's that he's adventurous and he's courageous. So, I'm sure -- and I also know that the community is extremely strong and supportive. So I bet he's all right.

O'BRIEN: You say part of the charm of the place. I have to say, charm is not one of the words that I read in the many descriptions I've read about this research station. The man's described as having some kind of serious bladder problem. Give me a little sense of what the medical setup is like at the station.

NIELSEN: The medical state is much better than it was when I was there, because of me, I think, in part, unfortunately. They do have telecommunications now, where they can communicate with doctors in the United States, but not all the time, because there's no dedicated satellite for the south pole. So you just have a few hours window every day where you can do that type of thing and communicate. But it's very rudimentary. When I was there, it was Army surplus.

O'BRIEN: Well, Dr. Jerri Nielsen. Again, nice to see you. Thanks for joining us and giving us some insight on this. And again your book is called "Icebound." It was a terrific read. Thanks.

NIELSEN: Thank you.

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