Sunday, April 20, 2003
Salem native Dr. Jerri Nielsen was stranded at the South Pole with cancer.
NEW YORK -- News dispatches gripped the outside world: A doctor encamped on Antarctica was treating her own case of breast cancer.
Now in the CBS film "Ice Bound," Susan Sarandon portrays Dr. Jerri Nielsen, whose yearlong hitch at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station came with a challenge severe even for that desolate outpost:
The lone physician among 41 "Polies," she was stranded with her progressive illness until a daring evacuation in October 1999 -- months after she first discovered the lump.
Apart from the drama of Nielsen's self-administered therapy, "Ice Bound" (9 tonight) is absorbing for its window on a unique team of earthlings and the alien environment they occupy.
"Nobody ever left this place the same person they were when they got here," a colleague tells Nielsen shortly after she arrives.
Sarandon can see the truth in that. After four weeks' shooting at Toronto's frozen Lake Simcoe and on a chilly sound stage (where the research station set was erected) "I started to kind of understand the appeal of cutting yourself off from the world -- the forced interdependence; the sort of nonexistence of time; the whole new set of serious rules.
Performance based on book
"It was cold," she says during an interview, "but for once, I was dressed appropriately in a movie for the actual conditions -- instead of running around in a spring outfit in the snow," as she recalls doing for her 1994 film "Safe Passage," set around Easter time.
Sarandon met the real Jerri Nielsen briefly during the shoot, but in portraying her relied on Nielsen's 2001 book, "Ice Bound," as well as taped interviews and footage of the medical procedures she underwent.
Despite the treacherous circumstances of the disease's onset and initial treatment, Nielsen is now cancer-free.
"That's an important message," says Sarandon, who hopes the film "will encourage people to take control of their own lives in terms of their health. Beyond that, the film reminds us that we're all dependent on each other -- yet that, sometimes, it's so difficult for people to ask for help."
For the 56-year-old Sarandon, whose film credits include "Thelma & amp; Louise," "Bull Durham" and an Oscar-winning performance in "Dead Man Walking," this new film addresses two themes she says recur throughout her career.
"One is the courage it takes to make yourself vulnerable by reaching out to other people" -- as with Nielsen, who despite her staunch independence, learned to accept help from her comrades. "The other: becoming a protagonist in your own life, and in some way trying to have control over your decisions. The key to that is information."
Sarandon said a key moment in the film is when Nielsen asks others for help.
"When you're a confident woman and a doctor, admitting you're vulnerable is the first step and the toughest step," Sarandon said.
Sarandon, who just last month co-starred in the Sci Fi Channel miniseries "Children of Dune," expresses hope that "Ice Bound" will spur women who otherwise might be among an estimated 40,000 victims of breast cancer in the United States this year. Far too many women, she says, are frightened by the specter of breast cancer to take even early measures that might help them prevent it.
Nielsen's commitment to medicine and an adventurous life began years before she arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in November 1998.
Growing up in Salem, Ohio, she was encouraged to learn about cultures beyond her back yard. Nielsen was the first from her high school to travel abroad as a Rotary exchange student when she went to live with a family in Sweden. She studied emergency medicine, married a fellow student and earned a prominent doctor's post at a university hospital in Ohio.
But after 23 years, her marriage soured and she decided to divorce and radically change her life.
"I didn't want to skate through life and go to work every day and feel that every day was the same," Nielsen said.
She applied for a doctor's vacancy at the South Pole and left a month later, toting a red dress, glow-in-the-dark nail polish and 20 volumes of world history textbooks along with her warmest clothes.
"I went to the pole thinking I'd come back skinny and smart, and instead I came back 50 pounds heavier and bald," said Nielsen, now a public speaker. "But I learned that other people are what matter in life and that we can tolerate much more than we can imagine."