Extreme expedition: Team from UTMB takes medical mission trip to Mount Everest

Aug 18, 2017, 05:55 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
Mt. Everest Medical Expedition 2017 Dr. Harold Pine stands at Everest Base Camp, an elevation of about 17,500 feet

Five minutes after landing in Nepal in 2015, Dr. Harold Pine and his UTMB medical mission team experienced a catastrophic earthquake that devastated the region.

Their carefully planned three-week trek to hold ear, nose and throat clinics in remote villages was turned upside down. Instead, they worked around the clock in Kathmandu to provide basic first aid to the injured, as the death toll reached into the thousands. Since then, Pine, a pediatric otolaryngologist, vowed to return to the region to finish what his team started.

“I wanted to do something special,” said Pine, who recruited old and new team members for another trip. “I wanted our team to experience a trip that was part humanitarian, part personal challenge.”

In April 2017, the team landed in Nepal once again. Joined by a UTMB medical student, surgical intensive care unit nurse and faculty members representing otolaryngology, pediatrics, urology, dermatology, radiology and plastic surgery, the team trekked to the village of Deusa, handing out 40 pounds of toothbrushes, providing medications, and offering free head and neck cancer screenings, skin evaluations and other medical care.

“In one day, we saw more than 300 people. It was amazing,” said Pine. “Deusa is located in a remote area that is completely off the beaten track—it’s where a lot of the porters live who support the big Everest climbing expeditions. These porters travel great distances, leave their families and do a lot of the hard work, so we wanted to support them. People walked for hours to be seen by us and we didn’t turn anyone away.”

In addition to medical care, the team also built an entire computer classroom for the village school, donating 20 brand new fully loaded Dell computers with software.

The medical mission was followed by the physically demanding hike to Everest Base Camp, which stands at more than 17,500 feet. While the air was thinner, the team bonded over the challenges they overcame and successes they experienced.

“It’s not an easy place to be; it’s not an easy place to work,” said Pine. “At one point, we were high enough that oxygen is half what it is at sea level. But we still managed to provide medical care to those we met along the way, including a climber who was suffering from altitude sickness. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of crucible to do this trek. It was really a memorable and rewarding experience.”

Dr. Dayton Young, a fellow otolaryngologist who was part of the team, said the bond between team members has stuck, even after returning to this side of the world.

“I think the mission trip helped break down silos,” he explained. “There were all types of people on this trip who work at UTMB and who I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. For example, I didn’t know the breadth of expertise we have in dermatology—and they were unaware of all the subspecialties in otolaryngology. Since we got back, I have already referred several patients to colleagues I met on the trip and am much more aware of what’s going on across the university.”

Pine is already planning his next trip to Nepal—this time in 2019. If you’re interested in joining the next UTMB Mount Everest Medical Mission team or would like more information, contact him at hspine@utmb.edu.