Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.
By Dr. Jerri Nielsen, with Maryanne Vollers
Talk Miramax Books
362 pages, $23.95
You can have Gervase, Richard and Gretchen: For a true survivor, give me Dr. Jerri Nielsen any day.
She endured a pathetic excuse for a marriage, only to have her children side with their father when the inevitable end came. She basically chucked her career as an emergency room doctor in Cleveland and headed for the South Pole to see what she was really made of and if she could make it in conditions that are almost too brutal to comprehend.
And when she discovered a lump in her breast, while working at the aforementioned pole, there was only one doctor within a thousand miles who could do anything about it: her.
This pretty much explains why the title of her book is "Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole." It is a positively gripping story of what it means to live through hell frozen over.
During the summer of 1999, the world learned of her desperate situation, although if it had been up to Nielsen and her almost pathological desire for privacy, we never would have heard a word. She spends a good part of the book railing against the evil media for daring to want to learn her identity and tell her story. She has apparently eased up on her feelings enough to promote the book on network television newsmagazines and in the Oprah chatroom.
But I digress.
She was 46 years old, recently extricated from a husband she portrays as at best manipulative and at worst abusive, when she decided that her life was stagnant and she needed something to feel alive again. She saw a help-wanted ad for a doctor to work with researchers at the South Pole. Being the adventurous type, she signed on and headed south. Way south.
At the pole - with other Polies, as they like to call themselves - Nielsen indeed found herself. Surrounded by a collection of characters who all seemed to feel that they were society's misfits in one way or another, she thrived. She sent ebullient e-mails back to her parents and brothers, describing the horrible conditions - temperatures in the 60 below zero range, months of darkness, medical equipment that was considered out of date during the Eisenhower administration - and how she oddly came to feel that this was where she belonged.
Page after page, she revels in the hardship and the camaraderie that Polies share.
Then, in one stunning paragraph, she reveals the real reason she wrote this book: "I found a mass in my upper breast. I was sitting in bed, reading a book, and absently rubbing my upper chest when my fingers stopped on a small, hard lump."
In a moment that March day, the healer needed healing. But civilization might as well have been on Neptune, because nothing and no one could come or go from the Pole until October, a lifetime.
What follows is a painful diary of Nielsen's struggle, in her own words and e-mails and those of her family, her colleagues and Dr. Kathy Miller, the Indiana doctor who would guide her through chemotherapy via teleconferencing and the Internet. As the lump grew and her pain worsened, Nielsen had to give herself a biopsy.
Ultimately, the U.S. government, through the New York Air National Guard, undertook an airdrop of medical supplies, which kept Nielsen on the ice until the temperature rose sufficiently for a cargo plane to land on the ice and get her to a hospital.
This is a book that would have been interesting enough if it were about spending a winter at the South Pole and, based on the detail she provides, Nielsen clearly would have loved telling that story.
But the pace of the book picks up markedly when she comes closer to mortality, sharing the pain of believing that death was imminent, the e-mails from her brother begging her to be strong, the helplessness that Miller obviously feels because she can't do enough.
It has been nearly two years since she discovered the lump and by all accounts, the cancer has not spread. And after an adventure that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, Nielsen proved with this book what she set out to prove: She's a survivor.