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Rescue plane leaves Antarctica after picking up patient

By Josh Levs and Phil Gast, CNN
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
An Australian medical team flew on an A319 Airbus, similar to this one, from Christchurch, New Zealand.
An Australian medical team flew on an A319 Airbus, similar to this one, from Christchurch, New Zealand.
  • Australian plane has left Antarctica for New Zealand
  • The patients needs medical attention
  • The plane uses an ice runway at McMurdo Station
  • The station is the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program

(CNN) -- A patient in need of medical care was en route Thursday from a research station in Antarctica to Christchurch, New Zealand.

The patient "may require immediate corrective surgery best delivered at a more capable facility than is available at McMurdo," the National Science Foundation, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, said in a statement.

"The facility at McMurdo is equivalent to an urgent-care center in the U.S., and is not equipped for the type of procedure being contemplated."

The patient's identity has not been revealed publicly.

An Australian medical team, which had been asked by the United States to assist, flew into the remote research base on an A319 Airbus from Christchurch. The team landed on an ice runway at McMurdo Station about 1:15 p.m. Thursday (9:15 p.m. ET Wednesday), said Patti Lucas, spokeswoman for the Australian Antarctic Division.

They got a chilly reception: temperatures Thursday were -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 Celsius), according to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The plane was airborne and en route with the patient back to Christchurch within about 75 minutes, said Debbie Wing, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Science Foundation, which oversees the facility.

The patient was in stable condition before the plane's arrival, said Wing, adding that she could not say whether the person's condition is life-threatening.

Rescue mission to Antarctica underway
2011: Stuck at the South Pole

The mission to the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program was occurring during the Antarctic winter, when there is little daylight for six months.

The Australian team was enlisted to carry out the rescue because no U.S. aircraft was in a position to respond quickly, the NSF said in a statement.

The U.S., Australian and New Zealand research programs in the Antarctic "have existing agreements under which such assets may be shared as needed," the statement said.

From the archives: Stranded American researcher rescued from South Pole

Wing said she could not say whether the patient had become sick or injured while at the facility, but she noted that anyone contemplating a trip to the facility must first pass "a very rigorous health screening process."

McMurdo can accommodate nearly 1,500 people, but only some 60 to 70 people stay there during the winter, when the extreme weather precludes regular flights, Wing said.

From the archives: Doctor rescued from Antarctica in 1999 dies at 57

The station, established in 1955, is built on volcanic rock on Ross Island, the solid ground farthest south that is accessible by ship, according to the NSF, an independent U.S. government agency. The station is equipped with landing strips built on sea ice and shelf ice, as well as a helicopter pad.

Researchers there conduct studies in astrophysics, biology, medicine, geology, glaciology and ocean and climate systems.

In 2010, New Zealand's air force -- in two separate incidents -- evacuated two Americans from McMurdo.

Last October, the U.S. Air Force rescued an American researcher who had suffered a suspected stroke while working at the South Pole. She was flown from the South Pole to McMurdo Station, then on to Christchurch.

In 1999, a then-47-year-old U.S. physician found a lump in her breast while stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station. Dr. Jerri Nielsen diagnosed herself with breast cancer and commenced treatment on herself with chemotherapeutic agents that were parachuted to the station.

It was later revealed, according to a March 2009 article in the Detroit Free Press, that Nielsen -- an emergency room doctor from Cleveland, Ohio -- had performed a biopsy on herself with the help of non-medical crew, who practiced using needles on a raw chicken.

Her cancer returned and Nielsen, then 57, died in 2009.

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