What It's Like to Run an ER— on Everest

Luanne Freer puts her 'expedition medicine' expertise to good use, at 18K feet
By Sarah Whitmire,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 11, 2011 8:43 AM CDT
Photo taken on September 30, 2010 shows Mount Everest from the window of an aircraft during a flight from Bangkok to Paro. Everest is the world's highest mountain above sea level at 29,029 feet high.   (Getty Images)
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(Newser) – Climbing the world's tallest peak is no easy feat. Just ask Luanne Freer. For nine years, the emergency room doctor from Montana has tended to climbers, tourists, local Nepalese, and anyone else brave enough to be in the deadly conditions of the Khumbu Valley at Everest ER. Intrepid Smithsonian Magazine writer Molly Loomis trekked to the remote clinic herself to witness the 53-year-old doctor, who got the idea to open the satellite rescue center at the Mount Everest Base Camp, at 17,590 feet, after volunteering at the clinic nearest the base; there, she realized many doctors didn't have the knowledge to treat climbers.

"Expedition medicine is a specialty in and of itself. I saw several well-intentioned doctors nearly kill their patients because they didn’t understand or hadn’t learned proper care of altitude illness and wilderness medicine,” she says. “Unfortunately, many just try to wing it." Everest ER has seen 3,000 patients, 30 of which were critical cases, and treated everything from upper respiratory infections to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, often with difficulty. "Medicine freezes solid, tubing snaps in the icy winds, batteries die—nothing is predictable," says Freer, whose limited equipment means she must continuously innovate ... and sometimes use duct tape. "After nine seasons, if we have significantly impacted 30 lives, if we helped return 30 people to their families, that is an amazing bit of work. Even one makes it worth all the effort."

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