Bozeman physician operates clinic on Everest

Luanne Freer combines love of outdoors with medicine

Luanne Freer came to Montana looking to combine her medical profession with her passion for wilderness.

She found it here, working as the medical director for Yellowstone National Park and in the emergency room at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.

But her work led her somewhere else; to a place where people have never even seen  a doctor before -  the highest place in the world: Mount Everest.

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Freer, 47, operates the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, a clinic situated in the Khumbu Valley at the base of Mount Everest.

Freer is embedded in Montana and enjoys here life here, but she leaves each spring for the Himalaya Mountains to open her clinic on Everest.

Most medical professionals want to give back, to contribute their skills to the betterment of society. On her first trip to Everest in 2002, along with a group of Canadian physicians, it didn't take long for Freer to realize that she was on her way to finding her life's work. 

While the Western climbers had access to proper medical care back home and while climbing, it was the poor, destitute sherpas and villagers who lived entirely without medical care in one of the most hostile weather environments in the world.

"In those two weeks there, dealing with sherpas, I realized they had such an amazing need for medical care," Freer said. "I came to realize that was something I could give back. I wanted to help these people."

It was then that she also realized that there was a lack of organized care by physicians to treat altitude sicknesses among the 300 to 400 people who attempt to climb Everest from the base camp where she operates her clinic. The most common illness her Everest Base Camp treats is a respiratory malady called the "Khumbu cough," as well as other high-altitude sickness.

Freer's mission isn't just to treat the well-heeled climbers who arrive from around the world to climb the planet's highest peak. She charges the climbers - who are able to pay for her services - and uses the proceeds to pay for giving free care to the sherpas, the native people who are risking their lives to carry "literally and figuratively" climbers to the summit of Everest, she said.

 The idea, at first, did not go over as planned, and the clinic lost money. But with additional corporate sponsorship and additional donated medical supplies,  the clinic has now begun to catch on throughout the climbing community on the south side of Everest.

The Everest Base Camp clinic, which is staffed by physicians 24 hours a day throughout the spring climbing season, offers a hyperbaric chamber that is used to treat altitude sickness, either in the form of pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, both of which can be deadly.

The pressurized chamber simulates a descent to lower altitude - something that cannot always be done physically with a sick climber. "I think we've done some great stuff up there," she said. "By and large, everyone is supportive of the clinic now, and it's relied upon by many of the larger teams each year."

The clinic saw a record number of patients in 2005, despite a drop in the total number of climbers in the area.

 Aside from the cost of physicians, it's not cheap to run a clinic at the base of Mount Everest. Much of the cost for the medical clinic is for supplies and camp help, including porters and cooks. Brown University last year donated solar panels that help provide power to operate the clinic.

 Although she's doing her life's work helping people on the other side of the world conquer the world's tallest mountain, Freer admits that she has a "great job" back here in Montana.

 Still, working in the Bozeman ER or dealing with medical problems at Yellowstone National Park isn't doesn't quite give her the feeling she gets when helping someone in Nepal who's never even seen a doctor before.

"I don't get enough of that feeling of giving back in the U.S.," she says. "Sometimes practicing in an ER leaves you feeling a little hopeless.

When I was exposed to true, desperate poverty and need, and I saw how we take for granted routine medical care, when I saw a real gaping hole and a real need among people who are really inspiring people, I saw that I could give a lot more there.

 "I had a harder time figuring out how to give back to this society when it was such an obvious need over there.

I hopes the clinic will become a staple of life in Nepal."

Freer is indeed filling a need, saving lives and giving back to the sherpas and villagers 

who are helping westerners achieve their goals of summiting the world's tallest peak.

"This is my way to help the climbing community and give back to these people," says Freer.

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