Kenneth Kamler, 56, is an adventurous man. For much of the year, he works as a New York-based doctor specializing in hand and upper extremities. In his other guise, Dr. Kamler is an eminent adventure physician, a staff doctor with scientific expeditions journeying to remote corners to investigate how crocodiles mate or how NASA’s medical equipment works at high altitudes. He is a vice president of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York.
Dr. Kamler has been to Mount Everest six times including the incident of 1996 when eight climbers perished. Dr. Kamler provided emergency treatment to those who survived the deadly storm. The journey is discussed in the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer.
Dr. Kamler’s journey on Mount Everest is recounted in his book “Surviving the Extremes.” In an interview conducted a few years ago by The New York Times, Dr. Kamler spoke about his expeditions and adventures around the world.
Q. Did you grow up wanting to be Shackleton or Amundsen?
A. Well, even as a kid in the Bronx, I wanted an adventurous life. I didn’t really act on that until around 1980, when I was already in my 30’s. I’d signed up for a mountaineering course in New Hampshire. The guy who taught me was an ex-Green Beret from North Dakota. I didn’t think we’d have anything in common, but we really hit it off. Afterward, he told me about a climbing expedition he was taking to Peru. They needed a doctor. Did I want to go? That was the beginning.
Q. You are a hand surgeon. How did you develop the skills needed to become an adventure physician?
A. You teach yourself. You read what you can and put that together with your own basic understanding of medicine. Nowadays, you can take courses in wilderness medicine, which is similar. But when I first started going on expeditions in the early 1980’s, there wasn’t much.
Before that first trip to Peru, I made a list of all the likely health emergencies we might encounter there. Then I looked up the various treatments and packed supplies for them. I wrote everything down on little slips of paper, like little Buddhist prayers, and kept them in my pockets just in case. Some of this stuff I hadn’t done since I was an intern; some of it, I’d never done. The basic thing with adventure medicine or extreme medicine is that you are going to places where humans don’t belong and people will certainly get into trouble.
When I went to Amazonia, l went as the field doctor for biologists studying crocodile behavior. There’s no way humans should have any encounters with crocodiles. You should stay away from them! There was no manual to consult about this. So before I went on that expedition, I sat down and made a list again. The biggest risk, I expected, was getting mauled by a crocodile, but also electric eel stings, piranha bites, poison frogs and parasites.
Q. Once in the Amazon, were you surprised by anything?
A. No one in our group got bitten by a crocodile, which was surprising!
But there were tunga fleas. These are little creatures that jumped up on your skin when you went to the latrine and embedded themselves in your rear end. You had to extract them very carefully. I brought along insect repellents, and they didn’t really work. The bugs seemed to feed on the stuff. The more you put on, the more they attacked you. Antonio, one of the Indians who went out with us, he took material from termite nests and rubbed it on his body. That was far more effective.
Q. Why do expeditions need a staff doctor?
A. Because most involve taking people into strange environments. There’s a reason why people don’t generally live in the places where explorers go. Humans exist within a real narrow range, and when people go beyond it, their bodies are not designed for it, and they may get into trouble.
Q. Speaking of hostile environments, you’ve been to Mount Everest six times. What exactly does a doctor do on the world’s tallest mountain?
A. No.1, I take care of the climbers in my group. I’ve been there as the staff doctor for four National Geographic expeditions and two from NASA. Base camp on Everest is at 17,500 feet, higher than any point in the contiguous United States. You can get life-threatening illnesses at that level. So you get people to the mountain in the healthiest way possible. You can’t just helicopter people from near sea level to that altitude and then expect them to start climbing. They’ll die if you try to do that.
My second job is to monitor the other climbers and interpret their health data as they go up the mountain. If something bad is happening, it’s up to me to call them back. You really have to be cautious when you go up there. People can die on a mountain. Every time I’ve been on Everest, people have died, though not in any expedition I was part of.
Q. You were on Mount Everest as the same time as the ”Into Thin Air” expedition. Do you agree with the author Jon Krakauer that those deaths were preventable?
A. I’ve never read the book. So I’m uncomfortable commenting on it. The people who died, they weren’t in our group. Once you’re on a mountain and disaster sets in, it doesn’t matter how people got there. I tried to help.
Some of the people on the commercial expeditions didn’t allow themselves enough of a safety margin to get down from the summit. They had a false sense of comfort with the mountain. Rob Hall, the leader of one of the groups, some people feel in retrospect that he was too comfortable with Everest. He’d climbed it so many times. When you face danger over and over and it never comes to anything, you lose your fear. In my hand surgery practice, I find that the people who cut off their fingers with power tools aren’t beginners, but the very, very experienced who’ve lost their caution. The same can be true of mountaineers. When approaching Everest, you should respect and fear it.
Q. You’re about to leave for a trip to a particularly remote part of the Himalayas, like Bhutan near the Tibetan border. How do you prepare yourself for such a trip?
A. Well, I swim a mile every day. Before a serious trip, I climb stairs. I used to live in a 40-story building in Manhattan. The doorman probably still thinks I live there. When I am getting ready for a climb, I put on a pack and go up the stairs 10 full times. I’ll do that every day in the mornings before my workday for about three months. I look at medical supplies and immunizations. There aren’t that many diseases in Bhutan because it’s high up, but there are some hepatitis risks and cholera, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, parasitic and fungal diseases and all kinds of exotic things, some of which we’ll never even know what they are. And there’s dysentery. Higher up, there are altitude illnesses: pulmonary edema, cerebral edema.
I’ll bring several different types of antibiotics, anti-fungals, medicines for lung infections, local anesthetics and a suturing set in case I have to repair some wounds. Sunburn is a serious problem high on the mountain. You get sunburn in the weirdest places — inside your nose and under your chin and inside your eyelids. I’ll bring stuff for that.
Q. Do you do this kind of thing because you don’t find medicine an adventurous enough profession?
A. Medicine is probably the biggest adventure in the world. There are more mysterious forces in the human body than anywhere. If I’m working on the hands of a child born with congenital malformations, I have no idea what I’m going to find inside. You don’t know where the nerves are going to be and how many. You have to find them. You’re out there looking for something, just like on an expedition, and you’ve got to find it and figure out what to do.