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Working Science

TelePresence to the Rescue: Medical Emergency at the South Pole

by Dave Jacqué, Argonne National Laboratory

TelePresence Microscopy, a technology pioneered at Argonne National Laboratory, aided a doctor in the South Pole to diagnose her own medical problem with help from doctors in the United States.

South Pole StationThe staff doctor at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station discovered a lump in her breast in June, but could not be evacuated until the end of the long Antarctic winter. Winter in the South Pole is brutal, lasting from February to October, with powerful Katabatic winds, temperatures reaching minus 65 degrees C (minus 85 F), and 24-hour darkness—all precluding aircraft landings.

Front entrance to South Pole Station
Front entrance of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during a typical September. The photo above is the same entrance with the snow cleared away. (Photos courtesy of Antarctic Support Associates photo gallery

The only alternative was for the doctor to treat herself at the South Pole Station, and for that she needed some high-tech diagnostic and communication equipment to receive and transmit audio, video, and digital images. She would have to perform the biopsy on herself with the help of some technical staff at the station, and transmit the diagnostic information to a medical team in the U.S.

Antarctic Support Associates (ASA), a private company that contracts with National Science Foundation to provide support to the station, went into action to find out what was needed, buy it and assemble it, and get it to the South Pole Station quickly. They first sought advice on long-distance teleconferencing from Chuck McPharland at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. LBNL had developed some of the first teleconferencing software.

McPharland realized that more than teleconferencing would be needed to allow a medical team in the United States to examine tissue specimens microscopically in near real-time. ASA needed advice on equipment and expertise to set up a "TelePresence site", so he put them in touch with Nestor Zaluzec, head of Argonne's TelePresence Microscopy Project.

Zaluzec, a research scientist, has studied microstructural characterization using both electron and optical techniques for more than 20 years. His most recent research centers on Argonne's Advanced Analytical Electron Microscope and TelePresence Microscopy, in which scientists can conduct microscopy studies via the Internet. He is also co-principal investigator in the Materials MicroCharacterization Collaboratory, which has created a system that allows researchers to control the microscope and interact with geographically distant researchers.

Nestor

TelePresence is a way of life for Nestor Zaluzec. He is online and on display everyday in the control room of the ANL TelePresence Microscopy Collaboratory.

"I ended up spending most of two days collecting information and talking to a coordinator at Antarctic Support Associates who was frantically trying to get the right equipment together," Zaluzec said. He worked out a simplified version for a TelePresence Microscopy system that the South Pole Station personnel would be able to assemble and operate. He also provided advice on microscopes, high-resolution digital cameras, video conferencing software, and computer hardware that would be suitable to the task and rugged enough to travel to the Pole and survive an air drop.

On July 11, the necessary equipment was dropped from an altitude of about 700 feet by an Airforce jet after a 6,000-mile flight that required aerial refueling. Two complete sets of supplies and equipment were assembled and dropped, in case one of the packages did not survive the drop or landed so far from the station that the extreme cold damaged the contents before it could be retrieved. Unfortunately, some of the instruments were damaged in the drop, but the equipment needed for TelePresence Microscopy arrived intact.

Station personnel assembled the instruments, prepared samples, and then transmitted images via the Internet to a pathologist in the United States. The pathologist viewed the samples, diagnosed the medical problem, and then advised the doctor and South Pole team on what steps to undertake.

"I was on call during this time, so to speak, in case they had problems getting any of the microscopy gear running. They didn't appear to have any problems," Zaluzec said.

The doctor, who had given herself chemotherapy, was finally evacuated on Saturday, October 16, in a daring air rescue mission by a crew from the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. Today she is cancer-free today, after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

The TelePresence Microscopy Project is supported by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences. For more information, see the TelePresence Microscopy website.

Contact: Nestor Zaluzec, ANL, zaluzec@aaem.amc.anl.gov


For a virtual tour of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, see the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA) website

To learn more about the Antarctic Support Associates, see the ASA website