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Australian medical team evacuates American from Antarctica in rare midwinter rescue

An Australian rescue team that swooped into Antarctica to evacuate an American experiencing a medical emergency landed Thursday in New Zealand.   

The patient, whose identity has not been released, was airlifted from a U.S. scientific base in a rare midwinter rescue from the frozen continent. 

The specialist medical team from the Australian Antarctic Division left Christchurch, New Zealand, on Thursday morning and landed on an ice runway near the U.S. McMurdo research station in the early afternoon, said Deborah Wing, spokeswoman for the U.S. National Science Foundation, which runs the station. Wing said a U.S. aircraft was unavailable.

The patient, who is being treated at a Christchurch hospital, is in stable condition but may need "immediate corrective surgery," the foundation said. Wing said she could not give any additional details on the patient or the nature of the medical emergency, due to privacy laws.

"The facility at McMurdo is equivalent to an urgent-care center in the U.S., and is not equipped for the type of procedure being contemplated," the foundation said in a statement.

It is winter in Antarctica and there is only a narrow window of light every day. The rescue team timed the landing to coincide with the brief bright period.

The team, which flew on an Airbus A319 with the Royal New Zealand Air Force providing assistance, landed on an air strip in temperatures that were 13 degrees below zero. The air strip is one of a few in Antarctica that can accommodate wheeled aircraft. 

Flights to Antarctica are usually made only during the summer, though there have been midwinter medical evacuations before. According to the National Science Foundation, there are no scheduled flights to McMurdo between March and October because of the harsh conditions. Workers at the research facility must undergo a medical and dental exam prior to being stationed there. 

In 1999, an American doctor from Cleveland was rescued from the South Pole after finding a lump in her breast and diagnosing herself with cancer. Jerri Nielsen, who was 47 at the time, treated herself with chemotherapy that was air-dropped until she could be rescued. She died in 2009 when her cancer returned.

Fox News' David Lee Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.