A middle-aged American woman from Montana who looks surprisingly young for her 53 years is the angel of mercy of the Himalayas. From treating local shepherds from the Rai lowlands south of the Khumbu Valley of mountain sickness to saving the lives of sherpas, Luanne Freer is the angel of mercy of the support workers of mountaineers who throng to challenge the world’s tallest peak, of which the legendary climber George Mallory said he wanted to climb because “it was there.” Similarly, lives are saved by Freer because she is there. “Sanche cha (Are you fine)?” she asks them in Nepali.
They are, thanks to her.
Everest ER, the clinic Freer set up near Mount Everest Base Camp about nine years ago, is the last resort for the inhabitants of Nepal’s Khumbu Valley and around, home to Mount Everest and several of the world’s highest peaks. Come spring, Freer makes the 10-day trek up to Everest Base Camp as she has been doing for the past seven years. There have been times she has stayed on for the entire two-and-a-half-month season.
Freer often hikes up to the base camp, to treat patients who mainly have come down with altitude-related conditions such as Acute Mountain Sickness, a mild form of altitude illness that can turn fatal as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), that causes the brain to swell. Clinics in the area are closed for winter; a period that claims the lives of most who make their living off the world’s highest mountain.
The Khumbu Valley receives over 30,000 people every year. They come to see one of the most spectacular icy vistas in the world, the majestic peaks presiding over blazing rhododendron forests like golden, sunlit gods. Sherpas never turn a visitor away, sharing the warmth of the yak dung stoves and the sweet thick mountain tea made with yak’s milk. Many of the visitors are accompanied by Nepali porters who carry their heavy backpacks for a pittance. The professional climbers are accompanied by teams of support staff to help them conquer famed peaks such as Everest (29,029 feet), Lhotse (27,940 feet) and Nuptse (25,790 feet). Freer treats many of them—both the climbers and their help—who fall sick due to altitude-induced illnesses, such as the notorious Khumbu cough, or stomach bugs that seem to thrive at high altitudes.
It began in 1999, when Freer and a group of doctors were on a short visit to Khumbu. The plight of the local people moved her. In 2002 Freer bexane a volunteer medico at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s Periche clinic, established in 1973—a remote stone outpost that takes a climb of 14,600 feet over five days to reach.
Here she treated tourists, climbers, locals and even doubled as a vet at times. Sometimes, she would, over the radio, even instruct doctors in remote mountain villages by remote control, how to deliver spinal anaesthesia to a woman in labour. In 1971, on the way to a hike to Everest Base Camp, Freer decided it was time to set up a satellite clinic for the Himalayan Rescue Association at the base of Everest. Doctors accompany many expeditions, but facilities for formal care remain lacking. Numerous patients would be sent down from Everest Base Camp to Periche because of this. Though Everest ER is just a canvas tent located at an altitude of 17,590 feet and functions as a seasonal clinic, it is a life-saver for the sherpas and their seasonal employers.
She noticed that many doctors were ignorant of treatment for altitude illness and wilderness ailments. As a result, some patients nearly died. In an interview to the The Smithsonian, Freer said, “Expedition medicine is a specialty in and of itself. Few doctors have the skills and background to be a good expedition doctor without a pretty substantial investment in self-learning. Unfortunately, many just try to wing it.”
The doctor has mountains in her blood. After finishing her residency in emergency medicine at Georgetown University, she landed a job as a doctor in Yellowstone National Park, where she has a full time job as the park’s medical director. Freer was also the president of the Wilderness Medical Society, and her special skill sets have been called upon not just at the Everest but also Alaska and Africa.
The callousness of doctors working around Everest disturbed her. Paying patients were traded well while locals were forced to walk, or be carried by relatives all the way down to the Periche clinic, or even to the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation hospital in Kunde, which was another day further away. Freer decided the money she earned treating wealthy clibers would be utilised to treat the poor sherpas. That has made her the guardian angel of the Khumbu trail. All along the trail, that runs through tiny villages she is greeted by grateful patients or relatives of the patients who she has saved over the years; they call her “Lulu Didi”.
The Everest ethos cannot be complete without Everest ER. But it hasn’t been easy. Freer had to scrounge for money to set up the clinic and purchase supplies. The ER’s handles cases ranging from headaches, diarrohea, upper respiratory tract infections, anxiety and psychosomatic issues.
The daily challenge that faces Freer and her colleagues is the limited equipment available. On occasion, they have used duct tape in place of plaster. There are no rulebooks for treating patients at 18,000 feet. Medicines freeze, batteries die, generators break down, oxygen concentrators become useless and IV fluids freeze inside patients’ veins. Sometimes ice water from melting glaciers would flood the floor of the tent. These challenges along with the personal bonding between doctor and patient—sadly lacking in urban healthcare—is a reason that draws Freer to the clinic that serves as the last outpost in the icy terrain.
Since 2003, Freer has so far treated over 3,000 patients. No fewere than 30 were critical cases. The spring of 2012 marks Everest ER’s tenth anniversary but Freer looks set to heal in the heights for many years to come.