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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
The highest hospital in the world
By Steve Robinson
Producer, Everest ER

The clinic at Everest Base Camp, Nepal
A long way from your local high street
At the top of the Khumbu Valley in Nepal, 5,400 metres above sea level, lies the Everest Base Camp Clinic.

It was founded in 2003 by American doctor Luanne Freer, to provide medical aid to the scores of expeditions that come to Everest each spring.

At this extreme altitude people get very sick.

Hundreds of climbers are ascending to well over 8,000 metres, the so-called Death Zone, where there is so little oxygen that the human body cannot sustain itself.

The most common ailment is "Khumbu Cough" a tickly cough that comes from the dry, cold air irritating the lungs.

It can cause coughing so violent that it breaks ribs and has been the cause of many an abandoned summit attempt.

Falling ice

Early this season, an Italian climber had to be evacuated by helicopter after being hit on the head by a falling block of ice.

The doctors co-ordinated a massive rescue operation, with up to 50 climbers involved, hauling the injured man over steep glacial ice back to the clinic.

He had to be strapped into a rescue sled with his neck in a brace, in case of spinal injury.

It was a dangerous and exhausting operation because he had to be manoeuvred over a fragile glacier, riddled with deep crevasses and huge unstable blocks of ice.

He was evacuated to a hospital in Kathmandu and then home to Italy, where he made a full recovery.

"It's a broad practice of medicine," says Dr Eric Johnson.

"Not just 'Here's a Scooby Doo Band Aid and have a nice day!'"

Poor reputation

Dr Freer (front row, 2nd from left), Dr Johnson (front row, 3rd from left) with their medical team.
A passion for the outdoors life helps

All too often Everest hits the news for the wrong reasons - climbers left to die high on the mountain, or piles of rubbish littering the slopes - but for Luanne such rescues show the spirit of Base Camp.

"Climbers tend to get a bad rap for being a selfish group, wanting to bag a peak and not being team players.

"In fact what we got to see was an extraordinary example of people pulling together for the benefit of someone that nobody even knew.

"Everyone was absolutely committed to getting him down safely and it was really quite inspiring."

The climbers at Base Camp are usually well acclimatised and know how to avoid altitude sickness, which is caused by moving to high altitude too quickly.

But many of the trekkers visiting Everest do not.

In a busy year up to 10,000 people walk up to the base of the mountain, just to look at the high mountains and say they have been there.

These trekking groups are often on a tight itinerary and may ignore the early symptoms of altitude sickness - headaches, loss of appetite - or may simply hide them because of peer pressure. In doing so they are risking their lives.

Altitude sickness can be easily treated by descending immediately and allowing your body to acclimatise slowly.

Although daily seminars are available on how to manage it, the clinic regularly treats people feeling extremely ill after going too high, too quickly.

The clinic is run on a voluntary basis and charges Western clients a fee for consultation and medicine, in order to provide a free service for the Nepalis.

Outdoor passion

Back home in Montana, Luanne is the director of medicine at Yellowstone National Park, while Eric is an emergency room doctor, also in the US, who has a passion for the outdoor life.

Dr Eric Johnson (left) and Dr Luanne Freer inside their medical tent
Warm and snug inside the clinic

Both are prominent members of the Wilderness Medical Society, an international organisation for medical professionals working in extreme environments.

Luanne loves her work at the Base Camp: "It's really very satisfying to take a situation - an illness or an injury that would make many doctors throw their hands up and say, 'I don't have my nurses, I don't have my hospital' - and make it work in a really hostile and austere environment.

"There's something really alluring about this mountain and, while I can't imagine taking the risks some people take, I understand why they do it now."

As May turns to June, climbers begin to summit on Everest and for the doctors in Base Camp it feels like a triumph.

They have nursed many of the climbers through the last weeks and kept them healthy enough to have a chance of reaching the top.

Hundreds of people summitted Everest this year, but 11 people died, the second highest death toll in its history.

Without the clinic that number could have been much higher.

  • Everest ER will be broadcast on Tuesday 12 September 2006 at 2100 BST on BBC Four.

    The programme was made by Indus Films for BBC Wales.


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