The ER at the Top of the World

Freer StoryPic-Everest_base_campAt the foot of the Khumbu Glacier is the site of the Mount Everest base camp, where climbers prepare to make their bid for the summit. The uppermost part of this glacier, the Khumbu Icefall, is among the most perilous sections climbers must traverse. The glacier’s spasms (it slides down the mountain at a rate of about 200 feet per year) frequently dislodge massive chunks of ice, sending them tumbling down the blinding white slope. Hidden crevasses can open under climbers’ feet. Deadly storms whip Everest adventurers without warning, brewed amid mountains so immense, they create their own weather.

As a videographer tapes during a recent climbing season, emergency physician Luanne Freer, M.D. leads a rescue team down the icefall to the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic that she founded in 2003. Tightly bound into the stretcher the rescuers carry is an injured Italian climber.

Treating patients at her ER at the top of the world — base camp is 17,600 feet up the mountain— is challenging in ways that would be inconceivable elsewhere. Dr. Freer works out of a small white Quonset-hut shaped tent on the glacier. Medicines sometimes freeze, fragile equipment too often fails, and human bodies react unpredictably at such extremes of temperature and altitude.

Still, each March, before the six-week climbing season begins, Dr. Freer, with one or two other volunteer doctors, will trek to Everest’s base camp, acclimatizing over many weeks, to again set up the world’s highest ER on its tallest mountain.

Although it’s been a lifesaver for westerners who brave Everest, Freer established her ER as much to help the Sherpa people of the Himalayas, who often serve as guides for climbers and trekkers.

In 1999, after giving a talk on her specialty, wilderness medicine, to other physicians, an audience member invited her to join a volunteer team of six doctors, headed for a small village in Nepal.

Over five days, Freer and the other doctors treated 600 people. “It was my first exposure to the tremendous need of a third world country,” says Freer.

In particular, she recalls a woman who’d been bitten by a snake several days before, who was carried five miles by her husband over a hazardous trail. After they performed surgery to stop the infection, Freer and the other doctors took up a collection to fly the woman to Katmandu for skin grafts. “If we hadn’t been there at that time, that lady would have lost her leg,” says Freer.

The experience made Freer feel valuable, she says, in a way she rarely had before.  She knew she had to return.

Freer next volunteered to spend 3-1/2 months in a Sherpa village at 14,000 feet, providing healthcare for both villagers and western trekkers. She says she developed a deep connection with the Sherpa people. “Some of them didn’t even own a pair of shoes yet they were much happier than my neighbors in the U.S. who have three cars in their garages.”

While there, she visited the base camp and discovered many injured people with no one to treat them. The base camp needed a clinic, and she became determined to start one, with doctors who could provide the specialized care the climbing community required. Her plan was to use any proceeds from caring for westerners to pay for free healthcare for the Sherpa people.

Getting started was “pretty exasperating” says Freer.  “I basically begged for donations, not of cash, but of equipment.”

But once climbers saw her heart was in it for the right reasons, Freer says, “They started to rally around and help me.”

During climbing season, Freer’s ER treats an average of 50 patients per week. Then, she returns to her day job, as a medical director of clinics in Yellowstone Park and Midway Island.

She admits that her volunteer work has sometimes made it difficult to have a personal life but says, “You just figure out what’s important to you.”

 

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A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Continental, the inflight magazine of Continental Airlines.