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Peter West (703) 292-8070

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering a range
of options for providing medical assistance to an ailing doctor
at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica.

Dr. Ronald S. Shemenski, 59, the station physician, recently
passed a gall stone and suffered associated pancreatitis.
Although he appears to be recovering and is undergoing a
prophylactic course of antibiotic treatment, a relapse cannot be
ruled out.

Through the use of telemedicine and ultrasound equipment at
the Pole, a medical team in the United States was able to view
images of the affected area and have concurred with the initial
diagnosis. Although Dr. Shemenski appears to be recovering,
medical experts from around the country are being consulted to
determine the probability that complications might arise and to
devise an optimal follow-up treatment. There is a possibility
that the condition could develop into a life-threatening one.

In the United States, a typical treatment of the condition
would involve surgery to remove the gall bladder. Under the
relatively Spartan conditions at the South Pole station, medical
experts consider surgery to be ill advised.

Dr. Shemenski is an employee of Raytheon Polar Services
Company (RPSC), of Englewood, Colo. RPSC provides the logistics
support to the U.S. science facilities in Antarctica under an NSF
contract. Dr. Shemenski, was awarded a medical degree by the
University of Tennessee. He specializes in family practice. He
also holds a doctorate in materials science from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“NSF is deeply concerned about Dr. Shemenski’s condition,”
said Rita Colwell, NSF director. “We are in the process of
examining a range of options to determine the very best means of
ensuring his health and safety.”

Senior NSF officials, including the senior staff of NSF’s
Office of Polar Programs, are weighing several responses,
including the use of ski-equipped civilian or military aircraft,
to evacuate Dr. Shemenski and fly in another physician to replace

As a result, NSF has made a formal request to the U.S. Air
Force to plan for a possible medical evacuation mission, if that
option is chosen. Temperatures at this stage of the austral
winter are near the point at which aircraft cannot operate
safely. The combination of cold and darkness make air operations
extremely hazardous.

The 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard ,
based in Scotia, N.Y., flies the world’s only fleet of ski
equipped C-130 “Hercules” transport aircraft and would perform a
military evacuation.

Approximately 35 aircrew and maintenance personnel from the
109th will leave Stratton Air National Guard base by LC-130 for
Washington’s Dulles International Airport on the morning of
Thursday, April 11 to board commercial aircraft for Christchurch,
N.Z., the U.S. Antarctic Program’s operational hub in New
Zealand. Three ski-equipped LC-130s will also leave Stratton for
Christchurch on Thursday. They will await further instructions in

Options other than a medical evacuation flight also being
considered are continuing the treatment available at the station
or airdropping additional supplies.

Fifty people are spending the austral winter at the pole.
Raytheon employs 39 of them and eleven are scientists from
various universities. All were required to pass a physical
examination before deployment. Winter in Antarctica begins in
late February and lasts through October. The “overwinter” staff
at the station are variously employed in maintaining the cutting-edge science facilities at the Pole, including some of the
world’s most sophisticated radio telescopes; building a new
station; and the maintenance of the existing station.

Normally, flights to the Pole begin in early November and
end in mid-to-late February. In October of 1999, the Air Guard
successfully evacuated Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was then the
station physician, in one of the earliest recorded flights to the
South Pole. Dr. Nielsen was suffering from breast cancer.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), through the United
States Antarctic Program (USAP), coordinates almost all U.S.
scientific research in the Antarctic. NSF is an independent
federal agency — the only one that covers research in almost all
fields of science and engineering.

For More Information

  • For more information about science in Antarctica, see:

  • For more information about the logistics of conducting science in
    the polar regions, see:

  • For background on the Nielsen evacuation, see:

  • For information on the C-130 “Hercules” aircraft, see:

  • For information about the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command,

    Editors: B-roll of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an animated locator map, and LC-130 aircraft in Antarctica are available. Contact Dena Headlee, (703) 292-8070/

    close up of plowing equipment

  • All photos: Diamond Western / National Science Foundation

    Plowing equipment on skiway

    plowing equipment

    plowing equipment from a distance

    more plowing equipment

    plowing equipment on skiway

    worker  and equipment

    Workers at NSF’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica groomed skiways and made other preparations to receive aircraft in case a decision is made to send New York Air National Guard aircraft to evacuate Dr. Ronald Shemenski, the physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

    McMurdo Station on Ross Island is roughly 800 air miles from the South Pole.”

    All photos: Diamond Western / National Science Foundation