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South Pole engineer stranded after stroke focuses on restoring full vision

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 8:20 AM EDT, Sat October 29, 2011
Renee-Nicole Douceur is shown at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica.
Renee-Nicole Douceur is shown at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Renee-Nicole Douceur says she will be dicharged from a Maryland hospital Saturday
  • A doctor says the high altitude at the South Pole might have increased her risk of stroke
  • Douceur became ill on August 27 while working at a research station in the South Pole
  • For weeks, harsh weather conditions prevented planes from landing to rescue Douceur

(CNN) -- An American engineer who was stranded in the South Pole for weeks after suffering a stroke will be discharged from a Maryland hospital Saturday, the woman told reporters.

Renee-Nicole Douceur suffered a stroke August 27 while working at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica. But Douceur was unable to leave the station to receive treatment because weather and storms prevent planes from landing during the region's winter period.

On Friday, Dr. Paul Nyquist of Johns Hopkins Hospital said the elements in Antarctica might have increased Douceur's odds of suffering a stroke.

"It seems likely to me that the high altitude may have played a role, because there are physiologic changes that may propel or increase the risk of stroke," Nyquist said. "These involve the reduced oxygen level. (It) causes the red blood cells to expand, and this may have set her up for a stroke. Although there are no signs to tell us that, that's just my clinical impression."

But Nyquist said he thinks Douceur will make a full recovery, including from partial vision loss she suffered.

"Everyone who has a stroke has an increased risk of having a second stroke. But I'm hoping based on her clean bill of medical health ... that this is an exceptional experience," he said.

Douceur -- donning a black turtleneck and tan overalls that she wore at the South Pole because many of her clothes were left in Antarctica -- said her primary focus is recovery.

"What's on my scope for now is to start my rehabilitation program to ensure that my vision is fully restored as much as possible," she said.

Raytheon Polar Services, the company that runs the research station for the NSF, has told CNN that the station has a well-trained medical staff that can provide all levels of treatment for employees.

But Elizabeth Cohen, senior medical correspondent for CNN, said it wasn't a lack of doctors that was the issue. It was the lack of equipment and a stroke expert.

Cohen said Douceur did some basic rehabilitation while at the station, which includes relearning math.

"This is a nuclear engineer who is having trouble with sixth-grade math," Cohen said.

After several weeks of waiting, a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane evacuated Douceur, who flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, for testing before coming home to the United States.

Despite the ordeal, Douceur said Friday she "wasn't scared at all."

"My personality is trying to stay cool and calm in adversity," she said.

Douceur said though she would love to return to the South Pole, given her possible risk factors, "it's probably time to move on." She said she might go back into the field she knows best -- the nuclear power industry.

Douceur's case is reminiscent of another that occurred in 1999 when a woman diagnosed with breast cancer spent months at a South Pole research center until she could be airlifted.

Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald -- a doctor -- diagnosed and treated herself for breast cancer with chemotherapy agents that the U.S. Air Force parachuted to her station.

Fitzgerald died 10 years later, after the cancer returned.

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