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Acute Mountain Sickness: An Everest Evacuation Vacation Story

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by Scott Dicken

Acute Mountain Sickness: An Everest Evacuation Vacation Story

Sirens blared as we weaved our way around the airport tarmac and through the morning rush hour traffic of Kathmandu. Sitting in the back of the ambulance I looked down at my wife who was being tended to by an EMT. Looking out of the front window I was horrified to see that we were driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic; a feat not for the faint-hearted on Nepal’s roads. This wasn’t how I expected our vacation to end!

A mere 24 hours earlier it had all been so different. My wife’s long held aspiration of reaching Everest Base Camp had been achieved; smiling photos and video footage attested to our success. Everything was going according to plan and the Diamox (medication designed to reduce the likelihood of succumbing to Acute Mountain Sickness) seemed to have adequately done its job. It was time to turn around and start the 4-day descent to Lukla Airport where we would take an onward flight back to Kathmandu.

But the high of reaching Everest Base Camp was unexpectedly short-lived. No sooner had we taken our celebratory photos with the rest of our team of intrepid explorers than my wife started to experience searing headaches and crippling nausea. The slow trudge back to the nearest teahouse at Gorek Shep, a 3-hour hike from Everest Base Camp, was a long and painful journey in freezing and snowy conditions; and that was without even considering the lack of oxygen at 17,600 feet.

The relative warmth of the teahouse seemed to provide very little comfort and her condition seemed only to deteriorate. Despite attempts to eat, nothing was staying down and she spent the next 15 hours curled up in the fetal position, ghostly pale, trying to keep warm. By the time breakfast came around it was clear: my wife was suffering from high altitude sickness and a decision needed to be made.

At this point, I need to explain my wife’s personality; the personality which made me fall in love with her. She is strong willed to the point of ‘lovingly stubborn’. So when I suggested that we might need to consider medical evacuation, her immediate response was ‘no way, I want to walk’. Bearing in mind that the day’s descent hike was scheduled to take somewhere around 9 hours, a fair portion of which we would be out of satellite communication range, it was a fairly herculean statement from someone who couldn’t hold food down for the last 20 hours and was severely dehydrated. It was at this point that I decided to play my ace card…..tough love. If she wanted to soldier on, then the first step was to go outside in the negative temperatures and prove she could walk around the teahouse.

To my chagrin, she crawled out of bed. To my astonishment, she made it to the outside porch. It was bittersweet when only a few minutes later she sunk to her knees in the snow. I was relieved that this little practice run made her see sense and do the right thing – which was to rapidly descend and seek emergency medical treatment.

The next hour is a bit of blur. After tentatively walking my wife back to our room to lie down, bags were packed, insurance companies were called, a helicopter was scheduled, and a hospital transfer directly from the airport tarmac was arranged. In fact, no sooner had I said goodbyes to our group than the distant sound of helicopter rotors began to grow. It was time to make our way to the helipad.

By this point, my wife had truly abandoned any notion that she was physically capable of walking. Instead we had three Sherpas inching her up the hill to the helipad whilst I crawled up behind carrying bags and trekking poles. Positioning ourselves behind a rock, the roar of the helicopter grew louder and the wind from the rotors blew me down from my crouched stance.

Under the deafening noise and blustery conditions whipping up snow into our faces, we were loaded into the helicopter which promptly took off and banked to the right to avoid the mountains surrounding us. All around me was the beautiful but unforgiving Himalayan Mountain range covered in a pristine layer of winter snow and below me were valleys raging with glacial meltwater rivers.  After an hour and a half in the helicopter tracing our journey back to Kathmandu, we landed at the airport and were greeted by our ambulance. It had been an adventure and this was just the start of it – we still had days in the hospital to come!

The Moral of The Story: Travel Lessons Learned

I’ve adopted a light-hearted approach to this story: my wife’s symptoms rapidly improved as soon as we touched down in Kathmandu, and we now joke about this particular travel experience all the time (particularly when she makes a passing comment about hiking the Andes or K2 in Pakistan). But it’s experiences such as these from which travelers learn.

When I’m travel planning, I often agonize over the details – flights, hotels, restaurants and activities – all are researched in meticulous detail. Everything, that is, except travel insurance!

Despite often traveling off the beaten path and, on occasion, to areas of the world cut off from modern amenities, travel insurance is a subject I rarely pay much attention to. Thankfully, my wife happens to have specialist knowledge in expatriate insurance which takes the pressure off me. If it hadn’t been for her, we wouldn’t have had appropriate coverage, and I certainly wouldn’t have understood the procedures for notifying the insurance company in a timely manner. That lack of knowledge could have been a seriously dangerous and incredibly expensive situation to resolve.

It’s for that very reason that we had specialist coverage, including helicopter evacuation coverage specific to Nepal, with a leading travel insurance provider.

On the vast majority of occasions, your vacation will likely be smooth and certainly without the need for helicopter evacuation off of the side of the world’s tallest mountain. Fingers crossed, you won’t ever have to experience the worst-case scenario of hospitalization. But, and it’s a big “but”, there remains a small chance that you will. In those worst-case scenarios, you’ll want to ensure that you have the financial means to safely and securely get yourself back home in one piece.

So, the moral of this particular story: travel insurance is worth every cent!

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