Brand building through storytelling

Dr. Jerri Nielsen: healer, adventurer, role model

When I learned last night that Dr. Jerri Nielsen had died of breast cancer at age 57, I couldn’t help but take it personally, even though I’d forgotten her name in the 10 years since she made news around the world. I still remembered the tale of her dramatic rescue, amid high winds and blinding snow, from the Antarctic research station where she had diagnosed and treated her own disease all winter while waiting until a plane could land. Her number one fear had not been for herself but for the 41 researchers and support crew whose health was in her hands.Jerri

To the amazement of softies like me, she had actually relished the experience, which almost anyone else would call “an ordeal.” As she later wrote in her best-selling memoir, Ice Bound, we “would never know how beautiful Antarctica had seemed to me, with its waves of ice under a hundred shades of blue and white, its black winter sky, its ecstatic wheel of stars.”

I miss her already.

We met fleetingly once in the Bay Street boardroom where she was speaking to a privileged throng of Chardonnay-sipping corporate types. She struck me as a woman who would have no use for a Prada bag—and who, if one came her way, would fill it with useful stuff like a Swiss Army Knife, a dark chocolate bar, a first aid kit and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She was forthright and funny, with a smile that could melt an ayatollah. The stories she told had the off-the-cuff wisdom of sudden revelations shared between friends, although she clearly had mulled each one in the soul-testing months of her Antarctic vigil.

She liked to quote her opinionated mother, who had lit the spark of adventure in young Jerri. Mom’s best line, spoken in old age, had something to do with purging her life of dispiriting people and situations. I remember saying to the congenial woman beside me, with whom I’d been comparing uproarious vacation disasters, “Sounds like the secret of a well-lived life. Why don’t we try it right now instead of waiting until we’re old?”

That night I thought I’d found a new friend in the woman beside me. But she was transferred to another city before we could book an endlessly rescheduled lunch date. I thought I’d remember the exact words of Jerri’s mother, who had framed them with such wit and flair. In fact they went the way of my son’s toddler witticisms, which I never paused to write down. In my biggest misperception of the way things tend to unfold, I also thought that Jerri Nielsen must have overcome cancer for good. She never said so, being a woman of science, but I jumped to that conclusion. I couldn’t imagine her dead in midlife, when she had enough passion and vitality to power a dozen ordinary lifetimes.

Last night while the sweet potatoes roasted, I Googled “Dr. Jerri Nielsen quotes.” I wanted to find that wonderful line of her mother’s and record it in a safe place. Dr. Nielsen had given so many speeches, I felt sure it would turn up somewhere. No luck. “Try You Tube,” my husband suggested. Nothing there, either. But I did find the advice Dr. Nielsen’s mother gave when she was weighing the pros and cons of a sojourn at the South Pole. Her dad, the protective type, worried that she might fall ill. Her mother said, “Get on with life, have the best one that you can imagine. A life is not just measured in years.”

Her mother used to call her Duff—the whole family did—because the first sound she made was “duff-duff.” Why do I find this so touching? Perhaps because the sweet jauntiness of Duff is so at odds with the toughness that Jerri had to show in adult life. Married more than 20 years to an abusive man, she lost her three children when she finally divorced him. It was then, at the lowest point in her life, that she applied for the job at the Pole.

This morning I picked up a copy of Ice Bound—the last one on the shelf, as if it had been waiting for me. I’ve only just started and already my head is popping with anecdotes and observations that deserve a second look. In one striking passage, Dr. Nielsen describes her teenage worry that she couldn’t change the course of the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. She writes:

Instead of marching for civil rights, I realized I could make a difference by treating everyone with respect and dignity. I remember, as a young ER doc, meeting some street people, whom I had cared for earlier that night, outside the emergency room doors. I offered them coffee and then sat on the sidewalk with them during my break. They offered me a cigarette and I took it. The intern whom I was training at the time came outside looking for me. When he saw me smoking, he was horrified. Later, he confronted me: “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t,” I explained. “But it was all that they had to give me, so I took it.”

Years later, when he had become a family doctor, he wrote me that what I had told him that night had changed his life and the way that he practiced medicine forever.

Now, there’s a story I can think about while following the news from Iran. Thank you, Jerri Nielsen.

Click here for my tribute to a very different kind of role model, former First Lady Betty Ford.


Posted by Rona

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