, Newburyport, MA

August 8, 2012

On the road to recovery

Months after her stroke made national news, local woman sees health improving 

Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — Renee-Nicole Douceur concedes 2011 wasn’t a good year for her, but after the 59-year-old engineer survived a stroke while stationed at the South Pole, she considers herself very lucky and is exceedingly grateful that she’s on the way to what should be a full recovery.

“I’d say I’m about 80 percent back right now,” said Douceur, a Lowell University-trained nuclear engineer who once worked at Seabrook’s nuclear power plant. “I’m still having trouble with my short-term memory, but my vision is much better and I can drive now. If I’m talking a lot, sometimes I slur my words, and now and then I can make up some crazy words. But I recognize when I’m doing that, and I correct myself.”

Douceur’s stroke last year made national headlines. At the time she suffered it, she was in a remote scientific station in Antarctica. She remained there almost two months before being evacuated to a hospital.

Since April, Douceur’s been undergoing her recuperation at a campsite in Hampton Falls in the 45-foot-long luxury coach she calls “The Gypsy Queen.” It’s been her year-round home since 2006. The mobile nature of the enormous, self-sustaining vehicle fits Douceur’s style perfectly.

For most of the more than 13 years she worked at Seabrook Station in various capacities, Douceur lived in a large home in Hampstead, N.H., then downsized to a condo in Plaistow. But her love of driving, travel and desire to see what’s around the next bend in the road led her to have the coach custom built so she could stay put or take off as she chose.

For a couple of years prior to making her move to Antarctica, she’d spend her summers in Hampton Falls, and when the campground closed, find a site in Seabrook that welcomed her. She even drove the mobile home to and from work at the power plant on a daily basis.

It’s this type of adventure that’s led Douceur to seek interesting jobs in foreign places for most of her life. She’s worked in England, Canada, Wyoming, Texas and Louisiana and, of course, the South Pole.

“I was on the Internet looking to see if I could find a job working in England again, when I came upon the Raytheon Polar Services site,” Douceur said. “The first sentence of the ad said, ‘Are you the adventurous type?’ “

Raytheon Polar Service was the private contractor that handled the Antarctic station for the National Science Foundation and was looking for engineers. As Douceur read on, she was hooked. She sent in her resume and heard back in two days. Shortly after, in January 2009, she was on her way to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station located on the Antarctic coast, about six hours from the southern tip of New Zealand.

McMurdo has a more “temperate climate” than the South Pole, Douceur said. About a five-hour flight from the Pole, McMurdo only gets to about 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, she said, and she found her work there enjoyable. After eight months, RPS was so pleased with her performance, she was offered a job as the station facility engineer at the South Pole.

“I said, ‘Great, I’ll go there,’” Douceur said.

She spent most of 2010 at the South Pole station, where American scientists conduct research. With seasons reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, during winters the Pole is dark 24 hours a day and temperatures can drop to 100 degrees below zero, with violent winds that scour the continent.

“The South Pole is on land covered with two miles of ice,” Douceur said. “The station is at 9,300 feet. But its physio altitude has the effect on the human body of being at 10,000 (feet) to 12,000 feet. Breathing is very difficult all the time and most people there have difficulty sleeping.”

Brutal though conditions may have been, at the end of her second assignment, Douceur was offered another promotion by RPS.

“I liked the work there,” she said. “I took the offer.” She signed on to be the site manager at the Pole station from October 2010 to October 2011.

But as good a year as 2010 had been for her, 2011 worked out to be troublesome. As site manager Douceur was not only responsible for the station but also for the 49 people working there. It turned out to be a stressful time.

Then, on Aug. 27, 2010, while working to arrange an emergency air drop of medication for one of the staff who was ill, Douceur’s vision failed while she was at the computer.

“I could only see half of the page,” she said. “I’d been up for 48 hours, I thought to myself, ‘You’re tired, you just need some sleep.’ “

But after six hours of sleep, when she woke up, there was no improvement. Douceur went to the station clinic to see the doctor, who initially diagnosed a detached retina. But after the doctor called Texas for a consultation, that changed.

“They told her they thought I’d had a stroke,” Douceur said. “I cried. I was stunned. My mother had had a stroke.”

A teleconference call with the medical director for the station followed and it brought encouraging news.

“They said, ‘We’re going to try to get you out of there in a couple of weeks,’” Douceur said. “I said, ‘OK, fine.’”

But soon after, Douceur was told RSP was planning on waiting until October to get her off, when the regular flight was due. That decision was unacceptable.

“This was my brain they were dealing with,” she said. “I’m not a stupid person, and I understand policy and procedure. But when a doctor says, she needs to go, then you need to go.”

According to published reports, RSP officials believed it was too much of a hazard to send in a plane to get her out before October. The cold weather and winds made it too dangerous for the flight crew, officials said.

But as her condition continued to worsen, she worried.

“My vision was getting worse, and my cognitive skills were failing,” she said. “My speech and memory were failing.”

Douceur turned to long-time Vermont friend Rachel Yushkevich, who recommended lawyer Russell Barr. After he reviewed Douceur’s contract, he determined a medical evacuation was allowed based on the contract’s medical provisions, which promises evacuation to save life, limb, eyesight or to prevent permanent disability. Plus, there had been other emergency medical evacuations from the South Pole, she said.

“I never wanted people to put people in harm’s way to come and get me,” Douceur said. “All I was asking for was for them to proposition a plane so it could come for me if a (weather) window opened. They refused. I felt they were gambling with my life. I knew the longer I went without treatment, the more chance I had of permanent brain damage.”

In distress, Douceur’s family reached out to the media, and her plight went viral in all its realms, print, television and Internet. N.H.’s senior U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen even intervened on her behalf with the National Science Foundation.

With all these efforts, however, it still wasn’t until Oct. 17 that Douceur boarded a plane for McMurdo station, then to New Zealand, where tests confirmed she had suffered a stroke. A week later, she was in the neurological ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Tests showed that there was a blockage but also a micro-bleed in her brain.

“I didn’t get to the doctors until almost eight weeks after the stroke,” she said. “They don’t know what caused it, but they think it could have been a combination of the stress of the job, the high altitude and lack of oxygen.”

Douceur believes if she had shown more obvious stroke symptoms, officials may have moved more quickly. But because she could still function, she believes they didn’t take her conditions seriously and that the high cost of getting her off the South Pole became too important a factor, something Raytheon denied. According to a published report, Raytheon spokesman Jonathan Kasle said the company worked with the National Science Foundation to ensure Douceur got out on the first safe available flight.

Douceur left Baltimore in November, recuperating initially with Yushkevich. When she was able to drive again, she picked up the Gypsy Queen and returned to Hampton Falls. She continues her work improving her skills daily with prescribed exercises, and she visits doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital, who took over her case.

Although she hasn’t ruled out suing Raytheon over having to battle for evacuation after the stroke, Douceur’s also considering writing a book about her ordeal. Yet more than anything else, she’s grateful the stroke wasn’t worse, that she’s progressing well and that she can drive and travel again.

“Driving is my passion,” she said.

And soon, she’ll engage that passion, moving out, heading west.

“I’m going to Jackson, Wyo.,” she said. “The West is more RV friendly than the East, and Jackson has a good hospital. After what I’ve been through, I’ve come to value having good medical facilities close by.”