Badass Women’s History: Jerri Nielsen

The posts that so many other awesome Persephoneers have been making for Women’s History Month have left me feeling so inspired. History is not my strongest subject: dates and names don’t tend to stick very well in my mind, I have found myself struggling with history papers and exams for years “¦ and yet, I have a list about a mile and a half long of badass ladies in history that I am just waiting to find the time to blog about. What better time to start than now?

Today I want to talk about Jerri Nielsen, a physician from Ohio who spent a year working at the South Pole in a small two-bed hospital, stocked with supplies straight out of the ’50s (this was 1999).  She set off to the South Pole after getting divorced, almost on a whim, after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper looking for physicians. This is what she had to say about the decision:

I wasn’t running away. I was changing my life. I was looking for adventure. Look, I had gotten to a point in my world where I was 46 years old, at the top of my career. And I was asking myself, do I want to do the same thing for the next 20 years? Sure, I’d had an unfortunate marriage, but lots of people do.

– Quote Reprinted from The Washington Post

In June of the year she spent there, she discovered a lump in her breast, a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. Dr. Nielsen realized that her lump was cancerous in the middle of the polar winter, during which there is absolutely no way to airlift people in or out “¦ she was stuck in the South Pole, with only the resources that she had immediately available, until October.

Dr. Nielsen is the definition of badass. When faced with this horrifying situation, she simply buckled down and got to work: she used ice as a numbing agent and stuck herself in the breast twenty times to get enough tissue biopsied to analyze. She also trained a welder who was with her to act as her partner in this life-saving endeavor, and a mechanic who was with them set up a microscope and computer to transmit the images of her biopsy to doctors in the US. The consulting doctors diagnosed the tumor as a highly aggressive form of cancer.

The National Science Foundation worked with the U.S. Military to orchestrate an incredibly risky air drop of supplies that included an ultrasound machine and anti-cancer drugs. The ultrasound machine shattered, but the rest arrived intact. Dr. Nielsen used these supplies to give herself hormone injections and intravenous chemotherapy, with helpful consultations from U.S. doctors to guide her.

On October 16th, 1999 she was airlifted out; by this time she she had developed quite a few infections and it was crucial that she get out. This dangerous, but successful, mission was the earliest one in South Pole history.

Dr. Nielsen went on to live ten more years before she died as a result of liver cancer that ultimately metastasized to her brain in 2009, at the age of 57. She is an inspiration to everyone because, not only did she go out and chase adventure in the wake of emotional turmoil, but she fought off breast cancer (and won!) in the midst of  incredibly trying circumstances. To read a more detailed article about this amazing woman here!

So, Persephone, tell me, who is the most badass woman you know/know of?


One reply on “Badass Women’s History: Jerri Nielsen”

My grandmother gave me Dr. Nielsen’s autobiography when I was 12 or 13. Instant hero. I wanted to be a doctor and work at the South Pole and have an amazing story of survival. (Without the cancer, though…) Pubescent me wanted that career and adventure.

Dr. Nielsen was the queen of badassery.

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