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Plane to evacuate NH woman from South Pole nears

By Holly Ramer
Associated Press / October 14, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—A cargo plane that'll evacuate a sick engineer from the South Pole arrived Friday at a base in Antarctica.

The plane flew from Chile to the United Kingdom's Rothera Base on Friday afternoon Eastern time, the National Science Foundation said. It will go to the foundation's South Pole research station on Saturday to pick up Renee-Nicole Douceur and take her first to the foundation's McMurdo station in Antarctica and then on to New Zealand.

Douceur, who's from Seabrook, a coastal town of 9,000 residents 40 miles southeast of Concord, is a manager for research station contractor Raytheon Polar Services Co. She asked for an earlier emergency evacuation after having what doctors believed was a stroke in August. Doctors she contacted for a second opinion say a tumor may have caused her medical problems, including faulty vision and speech and memory difficulties.

After initially having half her field of vision vanish, Douceur, 58, said she can now read if she concentrates on just a few words at a time. She sometimes jumbles words and has had trouble remembering simple lists of words during medical evaluations.

But officials rejected her earlier evacuation request because of bad weather, saying that sending a rescue plane was too dangerous and that her condition wasn't life-threatening.

Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said Tuesday that the decision to evacuate Douceur rested with the National Science Foundation, not Raytheon. The National Science Foundation said it must balance the potential benefit of an evacuation against the possibility of harm for the patient, the flight crew and workers on the ground.

In October 1999, a U.S. Air Force plane flew to the station to rescue Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, who had diagnosed and treated her own breast cancer for months before her evacuation. After she had multiple surgeries in the United States, the cancer went into remission, but it returned. She died in 2009 at age 57.

Douceur, who has worked at the South Pole for about a year, told The Associated Press on Tuesday she understands the risks involved in arranging an evacuation. She said she wanted to take advantage of a good weather window.

"There's an opening," she said, "but if they don't make that opening then it's probably going to be pushed on to next week before I get a chance."