Renee-Nicole Douceur, age 58, suffered a stroke on August 27 while sitting in front of her computer at the Amundsen-Scott research station located in the South Pole. Douceur works for Raytheon Polar Services as a winter manager at the Amundsen-Scott station, and has spent the past three years working partly in the South Pole. Raytheon manages the station for the National Science Foundation. The Antarctic winter runs from mid-February to late October.
Although doctors on staff at the research station have treated her to the best of their ability, they say only the advanced imaging and diagnostic machinery at a hospital can fully determine the severity of the stroke. Douceur is in stable condition, but only has partial vision in both eyes.
The extreme weather conditions in Antarctica makes flying in and out an exceptional hazard. Jon Kasle, a Raytheon spokesman, explains: “During the winter period, extremely cold temperatures and high winds make an extraction dangerous for all involved, passengers as well as crew, and such an extraction is considered only in life-threatening conditions.”
The climate must be warmer than negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit in order for a plane to land at the research station. While it has recently been warmer than negative 50 degrees for brief periods, temperatures are still regularly minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
“A risky rescue flight might not only jeopardize the health and safety of the patient but that of the flight crew and personnel on the ground at South Pole as well,” a spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation told the New York Times.
A flight has been scheduled for October 17 which can pick up Douceur at the South Pole and transport her to New Zealand for treatment. Douceur and her family are demanding an immediate evacuation, and they also ask that a medical professional be on board the plane to treat Douceur. Raytheon has assured the family that an “attendant” would be on board, though they did not specify whether that attendant is a medical professional.
While it is understandable that the Douceur family is concerned about their relative’s safety, the fact of the matter is that Renee-Nicole Douceur accepted a risk in accepting a job in Antarctica. In fact, pregnant women are barred from working in Antarctica because there would not be access to a hospital in case of an emergency. Just as contractors in Iraq are compensated for increased risk, so are workers who take jobs in the South Pole.
Douceur and her family insist that the reluctance to evacuate her immediately is because Raytheon and the National Science Foundation “don’t care about human life when it affects the bottom line.” While corporations and institutions can often be callous, the reality is that a flight’s actual monetary cost is relatively small compared to the enormous risk to the flight crew’s life. Raytheon and the National Science Foundation do seem extremely concerned about the safety of the flight crew.
Colonel Ronnie Smith, a former Air Force pilot who has flown in Antarctica hundreds of times, says that pilots are essentially flying blind because it is dark 24 hours a day, and lights can’t be installed underneath ice as they can be on an airfield. Pilots are forced to land in the dark under snowy, windy, extreme conditions that can freeze a plane’s fuel.
Workers are evacuated only in life threatening conditions. While Douceur is in a less than ideal place, she is stable. Risking the life of a flight crew for a non-emergency situation would be unwise.