Everest Clinic Tends Ills on High

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We have everything from pulse oximeters [devices that measure the oxygen content of blood] to eye drops to splints for leg fractures to a hyperbaric chamber [a sealed enclosure that simulates descent by increasing the air pressure inside]. Plus basic medications like anti-nausea medication and intravenous fluids. There will be two cots available, but anyone with a serious illness or injury will be stabilized and evacuated to lower altitude, where they will invariably recover faster.

What types of illnesses do you expect to see?

The most common ailments I saw last year were gastrointestinal—vomiting, diarrhea. It's challenging for physicians to sort out the cause of gastrointestinal illness, because it can be any number of things—viral, food-borne, amoebic, bacterial. I work to update myself and my staff on the latest emerging pathogens. We also plan to see more severe cases of altitude sickness, including high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE).

Does human waste present a serious health hazard on Mount Everest?

The ministry of tourism in Nepal has done a good job of regulating human waste at Base Camp. Climbing teams have to pay for permits for a latrine or disposal system, and all waste has to be portered out. I can't say that waste doesn't contribute to health concerns at all, but they are making every effort to control it.

Can you describe a medical case from your previous experience in Nepal?

Treatment can be really gratifying with high-altitude medicine. Rarely do you get to see people so close to death, then see such dramatic improvement just a few hours later. Once a German trekker stumbled into the Pheriche clinic on the shoulders of his Sherpa guide. He was delirious, had blue lips, and was gasping for breath, unable even to dress himself. He suffered from HAPE and HACE. Although there was a three-way language barrier (German-Nepali-English), we were able to save his life and he recovered within 12 hours. Another instance that comes to mind occurred when I wasn't even at my clinic. A Nepali porter was found unconscious on the trail and was brought in at night to the Pheriche clinic barely breathing and suffering from hypothermia, HACE, and HAPE. My translator, Gobi, who was 26 at the time and had no formal medical training, was familiar with altitude treatment after working so closely with doctors. Luckily, Gobi and our Sherpa aide, Namkha, warmed up the patient and gave him appropriate medication. By the time I got to the clinic, the patient had woken up and recovered— in fact, he decided to walk down the mountain on his own, against our staff's advice.

Who is most susceptible to high-altitude sickness?

If someone lives at altitude they tend to have more red blood cells to carry oxygen. Most of the indigenous people have some genetic abilities to deal with acute altitude exposure. Still, a misconception exists among the Nepali that they can't get sick from altitude, so they don't see themselves as susceptible. Last year I saw as many Sherpas as Westerners with altitude sickness. Sherpas get paid by the load, so they often push themselves harder and carry heavy loads up the mountain, which puts them at higher risk for developing pulmonary edema, or fluid buildup in the lungs. So a Sherpa gets the same advice and treatment from us as does a trekker from Los Angeles: Go slowly, rest often, and stay well hydrated. If you do become sick, rest, and if you don't improve, descend!

How do you envision the clinic evolving?

Ideally we would like this clinic to become a recurring, reliable fixture every spring at Base Camp. Our goal this year is to break even and cover the clinic's costs. Right now patients will be charged for supplies and medications. For Nepali people, including Sherpas, we only charge a 100 rupee administrative fee, about 75 [U.S.] cents. If we can make a profit, that money will go toward equipment purchases and to support the other clinics that offer free care for Nepali people.

I would love to have our clinic grow and be a sort of flagship for other clinics at high altitude. We take so much from the people and the environment of this region, I feel that with my level of training this is one way I can give back.

More Mount Everest Stories From National Geographic News:
Everest Time Line: 80 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
Making Movies on the Roof of the World
Everest Snowboarder Vanishes On Second Try
Altitude a Major Challenge to Climbers
The Sherpas of Mount Everest
Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change
Everest Anniversary Expedition Wrap-Up
National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition Reaches Summit
Everest Anniversary Team Makes Final Summit Attempt
Jet-Stream Winds Trap Climbers on Everest
Sons of Mount Everest Pioneers to Repeat Historic Climb

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