In early spring, Dr. Luanne Freer (Nurs ’80) makes the 10-day trek up to the Everest Base Camp Clinic, where she treats climbers, Sherpas and Nepalis with maladies ranging from sore throats and frostbite to deadly high-altitude illnesses. During the two-and-a-half-month climbing season, she sees between 400 and 500 patients. To stay sane, Freer tries to keep regular business hours, but the clinic is open around the clock for emergencies.
For Freer, the greatest reward is in the personal relationships that develop as a result of taking care of people. “There are several climbers we see two or three times a week and think, ‘They are just not thriving. There’s no way they can make it to the top.’ And then they do. They summit, and it kind of feels like we were along with them. We were able to get someone well enough to realize their dream. It’s tremendously gratifying for us to be a part of that.”
Freer recalls treating a Sherpa cook who had pneumonia. He didn’t know he was allergic to antibiotics, and when she gave him a shot, he immediately had an almost-fatal reaction. “He collapsed, his tongue swelled up, I couldn’t feel a pulse. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever dealt with,” Freer says. He finally did recover, and the next year he came back to the clinic with a Tibetan worry stone for her. “He said, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘Yeah, but I’m the one who almost killed you.’”
The clinic is housed in a 12-by-20-foot canvas tent. “Everest Base Camp is on a moving glacier,” Freer explains. “Even if you tried to construct a stone building, it would be gone in a couple of months.” Last year, a smaller tent was donated, which is used as the waiting room.
Medical supplies are limited, but over the course of the clinic’s nine years in operation, Freer has figured out the essentials. Duct tape is a favorite tool, as are makeshift splints and backpack-strap stretchers. Improvising with medications is more difficult. Freer uses an atomizer to create mists that can be administered through the nose rather than solely relying on IVs, which can freeze and break.
During the rest of the year, Freer lives in Bozeman, Mont., and works for Medcor as medical director for Yellowstone National Park. After a trip to Nepal in 1999 and later volunteer work there, Freer fell in love with the Nepali people, their culture and their landscape, and she realized that she needed to return.
Freer founded the Everest Base Camp Clinic in 2003 with support from the Himalayan Rescue Association. She runs the clinic with the help of a volunteer physician or two who are interested in mountain medicine and who can take off time to go to Everest. (Many Nepali doctors interested in mountain medicine don’t have the same luxury.) The clinic relies on donations, sponsorships and fees from climbers, who pay $100—in addition to the $70,000 it costs to climb Everest—for access to the clinic. Freer uses these funds to provide care for Sherpas and Nepalis as well.
“It’s a simple concept,” Freer says, “doing something you care about. It changed my life, changed what I do with my life, and made me a really happy person. You don’t have to go to Nepal. As long as you’re doing something that turns you on, and you combine it with something you’re good at, it really is a life changer.”
For more information about the Everest Base Camp Clinic and its fundraising treks, visit http://www.everester.org/