[MOL] Bravery, part 2 [01049] Medicine On Line

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[MOL] Bravery, part 2

That enthusiasm carried over to her practice at a succession of Ohio 
hospitals. "She brightened up the room when she walked in," says Dr. Jeff 
Snyder, who along with his wife, Cathy, became a close friend when he worked 
with Jerri in the ER at St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima from 1995 through 
'96. "She was really outgoing and dynamic and got along really well with 
patients." But in 1998, after 23 years of marriage, Jay filed for divorce, 
citing "incompatibility." He was given custody of the children-Julia, 18, 
Benjamin, 16, and Alex, 14-and she was ordered to pay $454 per month per 
child in support. Jay maintains it was Jerri who walked out on him. "I was 
completely surprised by the events," he says. "We had actually been getting 
along quite well." 

Around the time of their split, Jerri heard about an opportunity to be the 
sole physician at the U.S. camp at the South Pole. The job at the 
Amundsen-Scott station, which is run by the National Science Foundation for 
the study of such things as astronomy and global warming, required her to 
make a one-year commitment and pass a rigorous psychological and physical 
screening-including a mammogram. For nine months of the year, from January 
through October 1999, 41 scientists and support personnel-10 women and 31 
men-would live almost entirely in the close quarters of the camp, which 
consists of three main buildings, plus assorted other facilities, beneath an 
aluminum dome 165 yards in diameter. Outside, the temperatures in the polar 
winter, when the sun never shines, can drop to 80 degrees below zero-or 
worse. "Antarctica is like a big animal waiting to eat you up," says Bob 
Thomson of New Zealand, a noted polar scientist who made 78 visits there. 
"It's the most hostile place on earth." 


"I am responsible for everyone's mental health, and the general morale for 
the station usually falls on my shoulders," Nielsen wrote in an e-mail to 

Jay, who remarried last year, says he was startled when his ex-wife decided 
to sign on at the South Pole, especially since it meant being out of physical 
touch with her children-who, he maintains, first learned of her tumor through 
the media. Jerri's friends and family see things quite differently. For 
starters, they insist she has tried to keep in contact with her children. As 
for her decision to go to the South Pole in the first place, her friend Cathy 
Snyder says Jerri considered it a necessary antidote to the pain she felt 
from her bitter divorce. "She loves her children dearly," says Snyder. "It 
was not easy for her to say, 'I'm going to bolt off to Antarctica and leave 
my family behind,' but it was one of those things where she had to find 
herself again." 

Certainly, amid the desolate beauty of the South Pole there is not much else 
to be found. From the time she arrived at Amundsen-Scott last November, 
Nielsen apparently enjoyed the camaraderie she found there. Her main job was 
running a small hospital, where she took X rays, dispensed medicine and 
helped with the tension, disorientation and insomnia common to every crew 
that has been stationed there. "I am responsible for everyone's mental 
health, and the general morale for the station usually falls on my 
shoulders," she wrote in an e-mail to friends. 

-- Bill Hewitt
-- Ron Arias in Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary M. Harrison in Ohio, Mary 
Green and Kelly Williams in Chicago, Eric Francis in New York City and bureau 

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