PUNTA ARENAS, Chile -- He's a world traveler and a former stunt pilot. And until a recent gall bladder attack forced a change of plans, Ronald Shemenski was also the only doctor on duty in the windiest, coldest place on earth: the South Pole.
The 59-year-old doctor, who was airlifted out of the long Antarctic night this week in a risky rescue mission, says he's sorry he had to leave the Pole behind. And he's itching to get back for the next winter.
"If I had my druthers, I'd be at the Pole. But the window of opportunity to get me out was now. I couldn't sit around and wait," Shemenski said hours after a Twin Otter propeller plane carried him from Antarctica to Chile on Thursday.
He said he never worried about the flight out -- "these pilots were good" -- and that he rested on a makeshift bed atop a "couple of 55-gallon fuel drums" in a parka with a fur-lined hood.
"I'm fine," Shemenski said.
He would have preferred to tough it out at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station he left behind. "I didn't want the crew to risk coming down there," he said.
But in an interview with The Associated Press, Shemenski acknowledged that it would have been dangerous to stay on. He was diagnosed with inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can happen when a gallstone passes down the bile duct, irritating the pancreas. It is potentially life-threatening.
"When I got sick, I was having quite a bit of pain. I wasn't sure what was going on. We did some lab tests down there and nothing fit what I was feeling," Shemenski said. Doctors in the United States helped make a diagnosis that he had a gall bladder attack.
"It could have progressed to being very serious and the main question was, 'Was this going to happen again?"' he added.
Rescuers decided to chance a risky trip before worse weather set in, making the Pole unreachable. Shemenski was the only physician among 50 researchers working there -- his replacement was brought in by his rescuers.
The airlift was one of the riskiest to the Pole in winter, with the pilots of the eight-seat craft braving snow, cold of minus 68 degrees and darkness. The sun set last month and won't rise until late September.
After reaching the pole Tuesday, the plane was warmed by heaters blowing all night to keep fuel from freezing. Then it made the eight-hour dash Wednesday to Rothera, a British base on the Antarctic peninsula, across the water from Chile, before Thursday's last leg.
The pilots said the ride was surprisingly smooth. But it was long: 4,446 miles from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the South Pole and back.
Sean Loutitt said he and co-pilot Mark Cary and flight engineer Norm Wong encountered no problems aside from extreme cold.
"The weather was the biggest concern," he said, adding they anxiously checked at least four separate forecasts simultaneously. "We took our time. We had our limits, and we waited for the best forecast to depart."
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