You may or may not have heard in recent news about Renee-Nicole Douceur, a nuclear engineer who had a stroke while wintering over at the South Pole.  It made national news when people got wind that she could not be immediately rescued - winter at the South Pole, as one might imagine, is incredibly harsh, and she had the stroke weeks before planes could safely fly in and take her to medical facilities more advanced than what are available at the South Pole station.

I gather from reading comments on news articles that people fall onto two sides of the fence about this.  The first group thinks it's an outrage she wasn't rescued instantaneously.  The other group, while sympathetic, chalks it up to the inherent dangers of traveling to a location as remote as the South Pole.  Having yet to go to the Pole but having gone through all the hoops to "green light" myself to go, I can speak through experience that Raytheon Polar Services Company, the company the National Science Foundation works through to get Americans to the South Pole, goes through great lengths to ensure that people deploying to the Pole are as healthy as they can be.

This "green lighting" process is called "PQ'ing," (Physically Qualify).  What you need to do to PQ depends on how long (and when) you're staying at the Pole, how old you are, and your general level of fitness.  Thankfully, I'm young, relatively healthy, get at least semi-regular exercise, and I'm only going to the Pole during its summer months so the PQ process was simple for me.  All I needed was: provide a complete medical history, take a skin test for tuberculosis, make sure my vaccinations were up to date, get a 2011 season flu vaccination, get a 12 lead EKG test, have a full battery of blood and urine tests done, HIV test, dental examination, full mouth x-rays of my teeth, and get any dental work done the exam might have found (luckily nothing for me).  If you're older, and if you're wintering over like Renee was, add to that a treadmill stress test, chest x-rays, pulmonary function test, stool test, pap smear, mammogram, and pregnancy test for women, gallbladder ultrasound, psychological testing, hearing tests, and other conditional tests depending on results of all of the above.

As you can tell, Raytheon doesn't take PQ'ing lightly.  Summer at the South Pole (what it will be when I go) averages something like -30 F.  On top of that the Pole is one of the driest places on Earth, and the ice is so thick you're living at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.  It's ~ 12 hours of flying and waiting to get from the Pole back to New Zealand for major medical care.  In the winter it's more like -100 F, and jet fuel/oil starts having problems.  It's incredibly dangerous and most times impossible to fly at that time, so once you're there you're there until summer 6 months later.  So, if you fail or they find something wrong in any of the medical tests you have to fix it before Raytheon will even consider taking you down there.  On top of it all you have to sign paperwork saying you understand the inherent risks and dangers involved with going to the South Pole.

I've officially PQ'ed and should receive plane tickets within the next week.  Having been through the PQ process I can say with certainty that Renee knew about the risks, and that Raytheon did everything they could to convince themselves that Renee was as healthy as she could be before deploying.  So, I'm on the second side of the fence.  While it's tragic she had the stroke, I feel like Raytheon did the right thing.  They did the only thing they could have, really.  There was no way to fly a crew in to get her out early without risking the lives of the crew, and all parties involved knew about the risks.  As soon as it was summer, they got her out as fast as they could and now she's recovering.