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Dr. Luanne Freer, MD
When I began my medical career I had no idea what my passion was to be nor why it was important to develop a passion in life; a wise mentor suggested I come up with one quickly. His sage advice was that simply practicing my craft would get old and stale with time; I needed something that stimulated me beyond a paycheck. I found my passion in the wilderness of the Himalayan mountains and among the Sherpa people. How did I get from a western civilization classic suburban upbringing/lifestyle and inner city medical practice to the top of the world? .
A seemingly random invitation to join a medical volunteer mission to Nepal in 1999 changed my life and revealed my true passion to me. I was introduced to the beautiful mountains of Nepal but more importantly to the most gentle and inspiring people I had ever met as well as the astounding need evident in their culture. I returned to Nepal during the spring of 2002 as a volunteer physician at the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) clinic at Pheriche (14000ft) and then conceived the idea of a medical clinic for all at Everest base camp (EBC). During that time, I visited friends on climbing expeditions on Nepal’s south side EBC, and was approached by many climbers (foreign and Nepali alike) and their support staff for medical advice.
I was surprised to find that many of the expeditions, even some of the largest, had no team physician. Although many expedition leaders have far more experience recognizing and treating altitude illness than most physicians, most have little or no medical training, and I was surprised to find some of them regularly dispensing prescription medications to their teammates for maladies ranging from cough to diarrhea to abdominal pain – sometimes with disastrous results. Some of the private expedition physicians were understandably reluctant to treat non-team-member climbers for medical problems. I met an occasional expedition physician who was unfamiliar with treatment of serious altitude illness. For all of these reasons and the fact that I had a desire to support the mission of the Himalayan Rescue Association (which uses proceeds collected from relatively wealthy visitors to fund low cost/free health care for local villagers,) I lobbied the HRA board of directors to support a new clinic at EBC. Expecting record numbers at Everest, we set up the clinic in April 2003 to coincide with the 50th golden jubilee celebration of Hillary and Norgays’ first ascent of Everest.
Much of the preceding year was spent attempting to notify both commercial and private climbing expedition teams of the plan to provide medical care for any team at our facility. Countless hours were spent recruiting sponsors (mostly from the US), collecting donated medications and supplies, recruiting other volunteer physicians to help staff the clinic, and contracting Peak Promotions, an expedition/trekking company to provide tents, food and power for our team. Two physicians who had completed previous volunteer assignments in Nepal agreed to help me staff the clinic for part of the season.
As anticipated, there were bumps along the way, but we were up and running on April 2nd 2003. We treated hundreds of patients for maladies ranging from gastrointestinal illnesses to frostbite and deadly high altitude illnesses.
Our careful planning and provisioning prepared us with the proper medications and supplies to stabilize our patients for evacuation and descent or, in many cases, to definitively treat the illness or injury. Ninety percent of our patients were climbers or their support staff; the remaining 10% were trekkers-through or media and just over half of our patients were native Nepali. Not only was our clinic a convenience for many, but many expeditions recognized it was cost effective as well as comforting to be treated by altitude-experienced physicians who were well-acquainted with the health system and challenges in Nepal.
As with other businesses, humanitarian or not, fiscal matters are important in determining the future of a venture, and we lost money in 2003. But our organization was committed to carrying on during spring climbing season in 2004. By early fall 2003, we were lucky to have accumulated donated new clinic supplies and equipment, and we returned to Everest in April 2004 with brand new custom-made tents, and donated solar panels to enable us to power our equipment cleanly and inexpensively. We were fortunate to have the continued support of a managed website from friends who believe in the mission (follow our progress daily on www.BaseCampMD.com,) and production companies filmed documentaries about our clinic in 2004 and 2006, which will certainly increase our exposure to potential sponsors (see www.everest-er.com and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/5336134.stm.) We were well received and relied upon by more teams in subsequent seasons. And in 2006 we built on our experience and success; a record number of climbing teams contracted with our clinic to provide all of their medical care, providing budget stability and allowing us to finally balance our books. As more teams support our clinic (leaving their private non-climbing physicians at home) we will no doubt see even greater numbers of patients, enabling us to support our mission; we are fast becoming a permanent fixture for spring climbers at Nepal’s Everest base camp and a fixed support for health care for the Sherpa community.
Developing this passion, combining it with my love for the practice of medicine and with my desire to return something to the Sherpa people who teach me so much about life has left me personally and professionally fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams. I challenge you to identify your passion, combine it with your gifts, and use the combination to serve those less fortunate. Namaste loosely translates to “I recognize the divine within you”…
Luanne Freer, MD
If you would like more information about the clinic, visit the website at www.BaseCampMD.com.
Tax-deductible contributions for our 501C3 nonprofit clinic may be made online or sent to:
Himalayan Rescue Association – USA
PO Box 365
Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730 USA