World’s high­est ER risks all to save lives on Qo­molangma

Doc­tors on call on the roof of the world

Global Times - Weekend - - SPORTS -

As word came over the ra­dio that a Sherpa had been struck on the head by a fall­ing rock high on Mount Qo­molangma, com­monly known in the West as Mount Ever­est, the three doc­tors at base camp jumped into ac­tion, fully aware that sav­ing him would be a life-or­death race against the un­pre­dictable moun­tain.

Wary of the fad­ing light that would ground the mede­vac he­li­copter overnight, they ad­min­is­tered emer­gency treat­ment on the he­li­pad where the chop­per brought him in – enough, they hoped to give him a fight­ing chance of sur­viv­ing the 20 to 30 minute on­ward flight to a hospi­tal in Lukla, down the val­ley.

“He was bleed­ing, so we had to stop that and then get him down,” said Su­vash Dawadi, one of three doc­tors who has spent the last two months at the Ever­est ER, a project of the Hi­malayan Res­cue As­so­ci­a­tion.

The doc­tors staffing the sole emer­gency room on the roof of the world bat­tle high al­ti­tude, freez­ing con­di­tions and vi­o­lent weather ev­ery climb­ing sea­son to save the lives of sick and in­jured moun­taineers.

Medics run­ning the tent clinic at 5,364 me­ters must com­pete with medicines freez­ing overnight, winds that threaten to blow the clinic’s tent away and a car­diac mon­i­tor that gives up due to the cold.

Count­less for­eign climbers who have run into trou­ble on Qo­molangma’s un­for­giv­ing slopes have been saved from the brink by the rudi­men­tary clinic since it was set up 15 years ago.

But the ER has served a higher pur­pose: Pro­vid­ing af­ford­able med­i­cal care for Nepali Sher­pas, the guides who are the back­bone of the lu­cra­tive Qo­molangma in­dus­try.

“Be­fore Ever­est ER was set up the Sher­pas didn’t have any proper cover­age,” ex­plained Subarna Ad­hikari, an or­thopaedic sur­geon.

Es­tab­lished by an Amer­i­can doc­tor and now run by the Nepal-based Hi­malayan Res­cue As­so­ci­a­tion, the ER charges for­eign climbers for treat­ment and in re­turn pro­vides sub­si­dized care to the Sher­pas.

The ER has helped chip away at the stark im­bal­ance be­tween the for­eign­ers who pay a small for­tune to Qo­molangma and Sher­pas who take on much of the risk to get them there.

A Sherpa can earn up to $10,000 – more than 14 times the av­er­age an­nual salary in Nepal – dur­ing the brief two-month climb­ing sea­son that runs from early April to late May.

But that means many ig­nore med­i­cal is­sues for fear of be­ing forced out of a sea­son’s work.

“For them to lose that job, for them not to com­plete the sea­son, is dis­as­trous,” said Dawadi.

A rou­tine morn­ing at the ER was shat­tered as an in­jured Sherpa was rushed into the clinic – he had fallen 60 me­tres into a crevasse in the treach­er­ous Khumbu ice­fall.

Doc­tors quickly as­sessed him for in­ter­nal bleed­ing – a life-threat­en­ing in­jury so far from a fully equipped hospi­tal. But the Sherpa’s sobs of pain grad­u­ally gave way to re­lief as doc­tors con­firmed no bleed­ing or bro­ken bones.

A few days’ rest, and he would be back at work.

Doc­tors say at­ti­tudes are chang­ing among Sher­pas and other Nepalis work­ing on the moun­tain.

More are seek­ing early in­ter­ven­tion for health con­di­tions, en­sur­ing their prob­lems don’t worsen and cost them a sea­son’s work.

More than 60 per­cent of the nearly 400 pa­tients treated at the clinic this sea­son were Sher­pas or other lo­cals work­ing on Qo­molangma.

De­spite its life-sav­ing work the clinic scram­bles to stay afloat, re­liant on the $100 fee it charges for­eign pa­tients and do­na­tions, mostly in the form of med­i­cal equip­ment.

At­tempts to per­suade the Nepal govern­ment to fund the clinic through the hefty $11,000 per­mit paid by ev­ery climber head­ing for Qo­molangma’s sum­mit has fallen on deaf ears.

Some­times, emer­gen­cies are be­yond the doc­tors’ reach. News came over the clinic’s ra­dio that a Rus­sian climber was stranded at 7,250 me­ters, alone and dis­ori­en­tated.

Teams head­ing for the sum­mit had passed Rustem Amirov and ra­dioed for help, but none would turn back and aid the stricken man. The doc­tors tried to per­suade climbers on the moun­tain to help Amirov.

Even­tu­ally two climbers dragged Amirov to the near­est tent, just 100 me­ters away. They ra­dioed down to the doc­tors and then left him.

“If he was evac­u­ated within an hour he would have sur­vived,” said Aus­tralian doc­tor Bren­ton Sys­ter­mans. But no help came for the lone moun­taineer. He died on May 17.

In this pho­to­graph taken on April 24, a he­li­copter de­liv­ers sup­plies to Ever­est Base Camp.

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