CANFIELD Doctor talks about life in public eye, her future
Dr. Jerri Nielsen went to the South Pole looking for adventure. She found it. Now, she's looking for the next big challenge.
By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
CANFIELD -- When Dr. Jerri Nielsen was a little girl, she dreamed of doing something really important -- something that would change the world. In fact, she lived a story that gripped the world.
The emergency room physician who grew up in Salem was stranded at the South Pole in the summer and early fall of 1999, suffering with breast cancer and with no way to get home. She was the only doctor there, had antiquated diagnostic equipment and limited options for treatment.
The rescue: Finally, an Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules transport plane braved the weather and landed on skis at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station on Oct. 16, 1999, and rescued Dr. Nielsen. She had been working there with 40 other researchers from the National Science Foundation.
She not only survived but discovered the person she really wants to be: a strong, vibrant woman who lives a private but purposeful life making things better for others.
Although she was living in an extremely hostile environment, where temperatures sometimes plummeted to below 100 degrees below zero, fresh fruits and vegetables were a luxury and privacy nonexistent, she said that being thrust into the public eye was by far the worst part of her ordeal.
"That was not what I wanted at all," Nielsen said. "I wanted a private life, and after my experience at the Pole it became even more clear to me that it was important for me to live my life the way I wanted to live it instead of what other people's expectations were. And I suddenly found myself positioned where people were judging me all over. I was very uncomfortable with that because it was the exact opposite of what I had decided to do with the rest of my life. I had decided to go into total obscurity."
Front-page news: This was difficult. Her dilemma, being stranded at the bottom of the world, and subsequent rescue, led every newscast and was on the front page of newspapers around the globe.
During her journey home, sick, bald and weak from chemotherapy, Nielsen had to sneak into a hotel through the back door to avoid reporters. When she finally got home, she had to use a fictitious name to check into the hospital for cancer treatment.
Although she didn't like it, Nielsen said, she realized that "once you're in the press there's no way out." So, she decided to make the best of it. Publishing houses wanted a book. They told her if she didn't write about herself, someone else would. She knew that was true.
Drawing on 5,000 pieces of correspondence -- e-mail messages she'd sent and received during her stay at the Pole -- and 20 hours of videotape, Nielsen drafted the manuscript.
Of course, she said, the book is not exactly what she intended. Some fun things she and her co-workers did to amuse themselves were edited out.
"One of my editors said, 'This sounds like a frat party.' It was just like a frat party. It always has been," Nielsen said. What she wanted to convey was the great sense of community, co-dependency and mutual respect inherent at the South Pole research station.
When you're living in an extreme situation, she said, "you learn to be reliant on yourself and on other people." Inhabitants learned to be resourceful, making their own tools and finding new ways of doing things.
Because of that experience, Nielsen said her ability to solve problems is much better now than it was before living at the South Pole.
In media by choice: Although she never wanted to become a media sensation, she's discovered that "I can really do a lot of cool stuff" and now is in the public eye by choice.
Book tours and public speaking engagements allow her to share her realizations about the importance of living as one chooses and not allowing family, friends or anyone else to dictate that. Many audiences expect her to talk about cancer. "Cancer is not part of my life right now and I hope it never is again," she said. So that is not the theme of her addresses. Instead, she's looking toward the future and setting goals to accomplish even more challenging feats. She has several diverse goals.
This December she plans to serve as the staff physician on board the Polar Star, a cruise ship that tours Antarctica.
Nielsen also plans to study tropical medicine so that she will be proficient in recognizing and treating illnesses, such as malaria, and parasites that are often problems in third world countries.
"I've always wanted to be a missionary in Africa," she explained. While she doesn't look for that to happen any time soon, she also does not expect to be practicing medicine in the United States forever. "There are too many other things I want to do."
Starting a hospital: "I've always wanted to start a hospital," she said. "I can't do it here because there are too many regulations, too much paperwork. But it looks like I might get a chance to do that." Nielsen said she's exploring the possibilities of opening a hospital at the North Pole.
In the meantime, she's looking for a job as an emergency room physician, and touring the world signing books and giving public addresses.
She will be the guest speaker at Salem High School at 7 p.m. Thursday, an event open to the public, and at a breast cancer survivors' tea sponsored by the Junior League of Youngstown on Monday. She has 18 speaking engagements around the country slated for October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and will be in Sweden and Spain early next year when her book is released in paperback.