Tiny tent clinic battles to save lives on Everest

Patients waiting to see a doctor at the ER tent clinic at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Set up by an American doctor and now run by the Nepal-based Himalayan Rescue Association, the clinic charges foreign climbers for treatment and in return provides s
Patients waiting to see a doctor at the ER tent clinic at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Set up by an American doctor and now run by the Nepal-based Himalayan Rescue Association, the clinic charges foreign climbers for treatment and in return provides subsidised care to the Sherpas.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Doctors at world's highest clinic face threat of drugs freezing and premises blowing away

EVEREST BASE CAMP (Nepal) • As word came over the radio that a Sherpa had been struck on the head by a falling rock high on Everest, the three doctors at base camp jumped into action, fully aware that saving him would be a life-or-death 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 Dr Suvash Dawadi, one of three doctors who has spent the last two months at the Everest ER.

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 climbers.

Medics running the 5,364m-high clinic must compete with drugs 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 mountaineers who have run into trouble on Everest's unforgiving slopes have been saved by the rudimentary clinic since it was set up 15 years ago.

  • $133

    Sum which the clinic charges foreign patients. It struggles to stay afloat, reliant on this fee and donations, mostly in the form of medical equipment.

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

"Before Everest ER was set up the Sherpas didn't have any proper coverage," explained Dr 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 subsidised care to the Sherpas.

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

A Sherpa can earn up to US$10,000 (S$13,300) - 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.

A routine morning at the ER was shattered as an injured Sherpa was rushed into the clinic - he had fallen 60m 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. More than 60 per cent of the nearly 400 patients treated at the clinic this season were Sherpas or other locals working on Everest.

Despite its life-saving work the clinic struggles to stay afloat, reliant on the US$100 fee it charges foreign patients and donations.

Attempts to persuade the Nepal government to fund the clinic through the hefty US$11,000 permit paid by every climber heading for Everest's summit have failed.

Sometimes, however, emergencies are beyond the doctors' reach. News came over the clinic's radio that a Russian climber was stranded at 7,250m, 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 Mr Amirov. Someone gave him water, another a steroid that alleviates altitude sickness.

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

"If he was evacuated within an hour he would have survived," said Dr Adhikari. But no help came. He died on May 17.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2018, with the headline 'Tiny tent clinic battles to save lives on Everest'. Print Edition | Subscribe