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NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs

Dr. Rita Colwell



Briefing on South Pole Medical Emergency

July 13, 1999

Thank you all for attending this briefing today.

As you know, over the last several days we have been dealing with a medical emergency at Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, which has operated as a United States scientific research outpost for over 40 years, in recent decades under the leadership of the National Science Foundation.

I'd like to stress that the dedicated staff at South Pole are supporting cutting-edge science that is part of the future of our planet.

From the Pole we monitor climate year-round, studying atmospheric chemistry and the ozone hole.

Natural conditions at the Pole also make it an excellent site for astronomy and astrophysics. We're pursuing frontier science that is giving us glimpses into the earliest universe.

One project is pursuing a new branch of astronomy--using neutrinos to probe the nature of our universe.

As you know, a woman at the station who is part of Antarctic sociates recently discovered a lump in her breast.

This is a frightening scenario for any woman, even under the best of circumstances. Most of us live in dread of just such a possibility. The circumstances involved here make this woman's discovery all the more traumatic.

She, like the other 40 support staff personnel, are unable to leave the South Pole outpost until the austral winter ends and weather conditions permit an aircraft to land and take-off.

The woman has asked for privacy, and we are trying to protect her privacy. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have complete control over sharing her disturbing news with only intimate family and perhaps some trusted friends.

On the other hand, the National Science Foundation is an agency of the federal government with a responsibility to be forthright and open about its activities.

Because of the unusual circumstances, this private citizen, like the other staff, are completely dependent upon the services and resources of the National Science Foundation and the Air Force in cases of emergency.

So the patient-privacy versus public-information issue creates obvious tension. Our goal is to protect this brave woman at a time of crisis but to permit and provide disclosure of NSF and Air Force activities on her behalf.

We believe this to be the most compassionate and responsible approach. We intend to be fully cooperative within those confines.

I'd like to add that the woman is carrying out her normal work responsibilities, as are the rest of the crew at South Pole Station.

The important scientific work is progressing. The entire crew is in remarkably good spirits, considering the situation.

Many of the practical details of the medication and medical-equipment airlift have been broadly covered by all the major media.

I'd like to add that the woman is receiving the best medical care that she can under these isolated circumstances. We will continue to provide updates on that information as it becomes available.

It's thanks to advances in information technology that we're able to provide this level of medical care. The IT connections make the station much less isolated both for scientific and humanitarian communications.

The media and the general public have been very respectful, as well as genuinely concerned, during this crisis.

We very much appreciate that supportive attitude and wish to thank everyone who has helped with this situation--the Air Force, the National Cancer Institute, Antarctic Support Associates, and NSF's unsung and dedicated staff in the Office of Polar Programs. It's an extraordinary team!

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[Note: The above page is an archived National Science Foundation press briefing that is not currently available on the NSF news pages]