Mongolia trek almost turns tragic
Four days into a two-week horse trek in the isolated Mongolian Altai Mountains, Del Bissell realised she was in serious trouble.
The 65-year-old Marlborough woman – no stranger to far flung locations and high altitudes – had developed three different lifethreatening blood clots.
An experienced nurse, she knew her condition was grave and, despite the remoteness, a full-scale medical evacuation was needed.
‘‘It was about the worst possible place to be – I’vMongoliae been told I’m lucky to be alive,’’ Del said, back in the comfort of her Waihopai Valley farm.
Del was first driven over rough tacks to a local hospital before being airlifted to the Mongolian city of Ulaanbaatar for surgery.
‘‘The very efficient ED doctor there went into overdrive at the seriousness of my condition,’’ she said.
‘‘They thought I wasn’t going to make it. I did exactly as I was told - they didn’t want this foreigner dying in their hospital, and neither did I.’’
An emboli filter was placed in her vein to trap any thrombus debris and allow her to fly home to New Zealand accompanied by a doctor who administered anticoagulants and oxygen the entire trip.
Back home and embarking on a six-month recovery process, Del has had time to reflect on the seriousness of her condition and just how lucky she was to survive.
‘‘One clot is normally enough to be a problem – I managed to have three,’’ she said.
‘‘Basically I survived the nonsurvivable.’’
The trouble began when Del
‘‘One clot is normally enough to be a problem – I managed to have three.’’
noticed she was short of breath.
Physically fit from biking, horse riding and tramping, she had prepared thoroughly for the trek so the breathlessness triggered alarm bells.
She had suffered altitude sickness while in the Albanian mountains last year which was short lived and her first thoughts were this was the same.
But symptoms persisted. Using her medical background, and chatting with fellow rider, Peter Louden, an Australian doctor, the pair deduced she had a clot.
The New Zealand company she was with, Zavkhan Trekking, stressed the remoteness of the country on their website and warned of difficulties in the case of emergencies.
‘‘Zavkhan have an amazing exit plan and they were on the satellite phone to the medics and to my insurance company who master-minded the whole evacuation,’’ Del said.
‘‘We piled into a trusty old blue Russian Landie [4WD] and set off for Ulgii, stopping every few metres in altitude and distance to top everything up with water.’’
Medical facilities in the first hospital in Ulgii were scant and despite Del’s critical condition, medical staff told her it was altitude sickness and to go away.
But she refused, and eventually paid for an ECG, basic blood tests and a chest X-ray. The clots were confirmed via phone calls with a doctor in Ulaanbaatar.
Anti-coagulants were top of the list but none were available at the hospital but amazingly, Dr Louden, who accompanied Del, found some in a nearby store.
After two worrying nights in Ulgii, the medical team arrived and administered serious anticoagulation therapy before airlifting Del to Ulaanbaatar for full clinical evaluation and surgery.
Back on the farm she is slowly recovering but accepts it will take some time before she is back to normal.
She had no previous history of clots.
‘‘I was told it was due to age and bad luck – neither of which can be treated,’’ she said.
But, gutted at having to abandon the trek and the subsequent train ride across the Siberian Plains to St Petersburg in Russia, Del is already eyeing up another trip.
Waihopai Valley woman Del Bissell, right, fell ill while trekking in the Mongolian mountains.