Pinoy doctor on top of the world

By ELISEO B. SERINA, M.D. – My dream of climbing Mount Everest was about as far-fetched as any dream can get. I’m 68 years old with an irregular heart, gout, lens implants in both eyes, and unable to hear in one ear. I have no experience whatsoever in mountain climbing and high altitude trekking. It just wasn’t gonna happen. Or so I thought.

But, it did happen. While waiting for a project suitable for me at Doctors Without Borders, I found Himalayan Healthcare, a not-for-profit organization that has been helping the rural poor in Nepal since 1992. Himalayan Healthcare runs a hospital and healthcare outreach programs in the remote village of Ilam and its vicinity, 400 miles east of Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu.

I responded to their call for physicians to care for the poorest of the poor, and spent a month in Ilam treating people, providing consultations, and speaking on health issues to the villagers in the hospitals, marketplaces, and roadsides. In the thick of nationwide multi-factional strikes and roadblocks, I escaped Ilam at the end of my mission in a speeding ambulance, weaving around overturned vehicles and flare-bearing bonfire-setting individuals, to reach the Badrapur airport located 3 1/2 hours away. I then flew to Kathmandu where on February 25, 2008, my adventure began. I started my ascent of Mount Everest.

Experienced and professional climbers assured me that my climbing Mount Everest was doable—and that was all I needed to plan the climb. I’m not over-confident; I know myself. I learned a lot running 5K and 10K races in the past 18 years. Over time, I’ve learned how to go beyond a point or wall of a problem where one just can’t go any farther. You just do what one is supposed to do at that point, then go forward, making the primary goal constant and unchanged. With the climb, that goal was Kala Patthar, the highest point for trekking, located above the Base Camp of Mount Everest.

A barrage of emails and text messages descended on me from home: “You’re crazy, Daddy, but we’re proud of you, we love you.” “Go get that mountain, Daddy. I always pray for your safe return every night. Take a shower!!!” Consistent and unwavering, 100 percent support.

My experienced guide, Dorchi Sherpa, and I flew to Lukla, a village at the foot of Mount Everest at 9,000 ft elevation. (Dorchi, like all who belong to the Sherpa tribe, uses Sherpa as his last name.) At Lukla, my foot officially stepped on the Khumbu—the Everest Region—in Sagarmatha National Park. Here we picked up Omesh, my porter, our go-to guy for carrying stuff up to 300 pounds.

The climb itinerary? Unless you have hiked in Nepal, the villages of Phakding, Namche Bazaar, Tengbuche, Pamboche, Periche, Dukla, Lobuche, or Gorak Shep won’t interest you. But these places are so vital to the lives of the trekkers. These are the strategic rest stops after a half- or full-day of trekking, usually a detour of an hour to descend the valley to the mom-and-pop-operated, small, quaint village tea houses deep in the hundreds of mountains before you reach Everest. Because of trekkers, these tea houses have evolved into austere places that offer rooms with beds and blankets, a friendly atmosphere, basic western-like menu, and a fee of 150 rupees/hour ($2.50) to charge your cell phone. Here one goes about 60 years back in time: no heat, no lights, no electricity, and often a hole in the ground for a toilet in an outhouse 20 feet outside. And freezing cold.

Testing one’s limits

How cold was it? It was so cold, I had snow flurries in my bedroom where I tucked myself like a mummy with my nose partially covered to avoid a nose bleed. It was so cold that you have to wear so many thick layers of clothing that you don’t really see what you’re doing when you pee—you just aim for the whole Khumbu Region and hope you hit that one hole in the ground.

The primordial amenities, the extreme and unrelenting cold, the fatigue, and the long and seemingly eternal hours of uphill trekking are enough to send you home. But you do what you’re supposed to do. I devised ways to overcome new obstacles and to survive. I paced myself differently on the various terrains: up to 60-degree inclines, downward slopes, sharp turns, long swaying bridges, streams, and solidified snow and boulders. I avoided being run over by horses, yaks, and yetis that shared the same narrow paths at the edges of cliffs. I carefully prevented twisting my ankle or knee, as this threat with every step would guarantee an immediate trip home. And I did not fall. Man, I couldn’t even look down the edge of the narrow cliffs at the river 2,000 feet below, where rocks dislodged by my boots tumbled.

It was just the three of us in the middle of nowhere. The experienced Dorchi was always behind me, letting me know how to go around sacred mounds along the way as he whispered, “Ohh moni pet miayong” (peace, happiness, safe trip), ready to catch me if I fell. I was impressed by how he could identify the dung of a yak, yeti, horse, goat, chicken, or human on the trail. At one point, I asked him when John F. Kennedy was born, and of course he didn’t know. “Dorchi, my good man,” I said, “you’re only good with dung!” He laughed.

The climb was basically different and difficult. “Racho mato chiplo bato” (Red mud means rough road ahead). How difficult was it? Well, from Phakding to Namche Bazaar, it was a grueling seven hours of 45-degree inclines 80 percent of the time going up. Another typical stretch was Namche Bazaar to Tengbuche: three hours of up-and-down rollercoaster trekking, then a 45-degree vertical climb for five solid hours. I often took two to three steps at a time and then stop, hyperventilate and drink water. It was beyond my comprehension how I did it. The rest of the over 40++ hours of trekking in nine days were the same: hard, cold, hellish. I developed a different perspective of what I want if I go to hell—I want it really hot and flat!

My taking just aspirin and fish oil as daily medications raised grave concern that my heart in atrial fibrillation combined with the high altitude, dehydration, and impending pulmonary/cerebral edema, may be a fatal combination. My atrial fibrillation did act up considerably, but perhaps because of humor, my heart didn’t quit on me! My sanity was okay, I guess.

We rested one night in a teahouse at Lobuche at 16,000 feet, the air with a 60 percent oxygen content and minus 20 to 30 degree temps. This was a typical place where haggard and tired trekkers huddle around a dung-fired heater at the dining room. These lone trekkers from around the world freely exchanged ideas on a higher plane—without confrontation and with humor—collectively detaching themselves momentarily from family, work, or personal circumstance. Ewan the Briton, Peter the Bostonian, Ray the Australian, Walter the Swiss, and Mike the German were accomplished people with ideas far beyond the norm, tired of the humdrum, espousing ongoing humanitarian endeavors, and sharing unifying universal philosophies of peace, love, compassion.

The following morning, we faced the final stretch: a four-hour trek to Gorak Shep followed by a three-night stay to acclimatize to the altitude, and then four hours of an extraordinarily steep climb to Kala Patthar at 18,208 feet with a 50-percent oxygen air content and minus 30 degree temperatures. Dorchi and I decided to rent and ride a horse for the last four hours of the final ascent to Kala Patthar, in order to shave off eight hours of walking and the three-night stay at Gorak Shep.

Close Call

About 30 minutes before reaching the top at Kala Patthar, the saddle became loose and had to be centered. I had the Sherpa steady the horse and tighten the saddle. However, the saddle continued to slide. I tried to get off but couldn’t free my boot from the stirrup fast enough, and the saddle, horse, and I fell off the cliff towards Base Camp about 2,000 ft below. Rocks and bushes stopped our descent, and I personally stopped the horse’s slide as she came down, pinned me, and dragged me against the rocks to a halt. My guide shouted “Oh my God”—even though he was Buddhist—thinking I was gone or dreading what shape my senior body would be in if I was still alive!

I was conscious as they lifted the horse, and I rolled away. Finding no obvious break in my bones but with a severe bruise and blood on my sock on the intact left leg, I asserted my doctor’s prerogative to decide and had them prepare the saddle and help me proceed to what was more important: reaching the top before pain overwhelmed me or a fracture became obvious.

On top of the world at last! Many dream of climbing Everest, but only few attempt to, most come up short or perishing. I could have waxed poetic about the depth of emotions expected at that moment, but the exhilarating feeling, the exceeding joy, the triumphant emotion with arms eagle-spread didn’t happen. Instead, excruciating pain and a desire to go where I could nurse my wounds were what I felt.

My lack of excitement made me realize that I considered the feat as just one job to do, only a part of my overall plan of going to Nepal for a philosophy that I endeavored to give life to. The plan was something bigger than the feat. It was something bigger than life. I—the man—wasn’t important in comparison.

In Ilam, I made a frowning child smile, as she was in the arms of her mother, and she clasped her tiny hands together and uttered, “Namaste” as if to say “Thank you for coming to see me and my sick mom.” That simple gesture gave me an inner joy, made me feel that I’m worth a bit of something good after all. When I was at the top of the world, I realized the child would still be there, unchanged by my accomplishment. The Everest region and its impoverished people would be unchanged.

I climbed the highest mountain, embraced the goodness of a people, ex-changed endearing philosophies with different global trekkers, and communicated through the language of the heart: love and compassion. I dared to go beyond my comfort zone to test my limits. That is done. But what accomplishment should I be joyful about if what I left behind in Ilam reverts to a black hole of a status quo? They impacted my life profoundly, but that feeling would be selfish on my part because I didn’t even make a dent on theirs.

Once in a lifetime, a trekker comes along. He reveals to you problems and struggles of the human family that are ongoing. What challenges in life do we face that would be as high as the highest mountain that cannot be overcome? Would you learn from him and do something about it in your lifetime?

What would you do?

Namaste.

About the author
Dr. Eliseo Serina is a retired family practice physician from Southern California. He is currently recuperating from his injuries at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes while writing a book about his adventures in Ilam, Nepal, on Mount Everest, and of his recuperation in three countries, as well as his observations of a gaping hole in airport security that will make terrorists salivate.

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