You might say Ken Kamler has a split personality. On one side he’s a noted Long Island hand surgeon. On the other he’s an expedition doctor who travels with scientific teams to the world’s remotest spots, including going to Mount Everest six times. Kamler has written two books about his encounters with “extreme medicine” ("Doctor on Everest" and "Surviving the Extremes"). He’s also active with the Explorers Club and appears regularly on radio and television. The term “Renaissance man” comes to mind.
In 1996 on his fourth trip to Everest, Kamler was the only doctor present when eight climbers died after a raging storm howled in (detailed in Jon Krakauer’s book "Into Thin Air"). Kamler treated survivors with limited supplies. But he also gained new respect for the mind’s healing power after witnessing the miraculous survival of climber Beck Weathers, above, who was buried in snow for 36 hours and left for dead.
Kamler, now 67, has also lent a medical hand to countless others in need during his travels. But he admits it’s really about the adventure. “I’m not specifically out to save the world,” he says. “I think it’s a waste not to experience and learn as much as you can during your limited time here.”
We talked to Kramer about his love of adventure and what all of us can learn from pushing the boundaries.
As the expedition doctor, Kamler treated Beck Weathers for severe frostbite and hypothermia. (Photo: Frank Fischbeck/FormAsia)
MNN: Did you always dream of being an adventurer?
Ken Kramer: I read "Annapurna" (by Maurice Herzog) when I was a kid, which is a classic mountaineering story. It opened up this whole world of exploration. But I grew up in the Bronx so I wasn’t really in a position to do that. I found I could explore through a microscope. And that got me into biology, which got me into medicine.
What’s attractive about extreme medicine?
I like the contrast. At home I perform microsurgery in a large modern hospital with the most advanced equipment. But Western medicine is getting so bureaucratic. You have to get authorization from insurance companies for everything, which isn’t really practicing medicine.
It’s just the opposite in the undeveloped world. People in remote regions have very few resources. The conditions would be completely unacceptable in the Western world. And yet you’re dealing with human beings who have the same problems. You have to almost make it up as you go. They’re just genuinely grateful for whatever you can do. It’s pure medicine.
Do you still enjoy practicing in the U.S.?
Oh, I totally do. I always liked exploring — whether it’s in remote corners of the world or the human body, which is the most mysterious place in the universe. I’ve been practicing medicine for 30-something years and I’m still finding out new things about the body and different surgical techniques. In that way it’s very parallel to the exploration in the wilderness.
How have these adventures transformed you?
I like taking challenges and seeing how far I can push myself. Most people never push themselves to the limit and don’t really know what they’re made of. But when you do, you find you’re capable of much more than you thought. You find qualities that would otherwise lie dormant your entire life. And you keep those qualities with you.
Adventures also tell you what’s important in life. When you’re in the wilderness you’re worried about staying warm and getting enough food and shelter — the basic necessities. In civilized society you rarely worry about these things and wind up worrying about unimportant things, like getting stuck in traffic or being late for a meeting. You come back from these trips with a real balance. But you have to renew it or you fall back into the same system.
It almost sounds like a spiritual practice.
Yes, it almost is.
You gave a TEDMED talk about the disaster on Everest. You describe it like an awakening.
It absolutely was. There’s just no way Beck Weathers should have survived. But he did.(You can hear more about Weathers’s astonishing survival story in Kamler’s 2010 TEDMED talk in the video below.)
He told you he survived by thinking about his wife and kids. You called it the “power of the mind.” Have you seen other medical miracles?
Absolutely. On one Everest climb, a Sherpa (Nepalese mountain-climbing guide) fell into a crevasse and fractured his skull. He was totally unconscious and unresponsive to deep pain stimuli, which is like one step before death. I started an IV and did what I could, but I was sure he’d die that night. The other Sherpas came to his tent and chanted the whole night. It was hypnotic, a quadraphonic sound all around us. In the morning the guy opened his eyes and started talking. He probably would have died in the intensive care unit. I totally attribute this to the Sherpas' chanting.
How do you explain it?
You almost have to make up some story. I thought maybe the chant had some kind of resonance, which it does. The brain and body are very electrical. I can speculate that the resonance augmented the brain’s electrical energy, allowing him to pull through. It’s as good a story as any. The real thing is we don’t know. There’s a lot more going on in our world than we can sense — a kind of cosmic reality that we only vaguely grasp. You come closer to it in a place like the Himalayas.
Is it hard for a man of science to say this?
It depends on my audience. If I’m speaking to the medical society I tone it down. But I think the two parts fit together. I don’t really believe in the supernatural. I believe these [seemingly inexplicable occurrences] are natural. We just don’t understand them. Like reading someone’s mind: Thoughts generate electricity, which is actually measurable. It’s not impossible to believe that someone else can pick up those waves. To me that’s not woo-woo stuff.
If only we could bring more of that healing power to Western medicine…
Some people are trying. Most surgeons will tell you they can almost predict by a patient’s personality who will do well and who’s going to have complications. If someone focuses on their injury and has a “poor-me” attitude, they don’t do nearly as well as people who say, “Fix me. I don’t have time for this.”
How are you able to leave your medical practice for long periods?
I never wanted to go down the standard doctor route. I never bought a house, and I have the cheapest car in the doctors’ parking lot — a Mini Cooper. So I’ve always lived below my means. I can afford to take time off. I never got a medical partner so there’s nobody saying I can’t go. I only do elective surgeries so my patients wait if they want to see me.
And you’ve been named a top doctor several times [by U.S. News & World Report and others]…
[Laughs] Yeah, I have my cake and eat it too. It’s a question of priorities. People may not realize it but they make choices. The first thing most doctors do is buy a fancy car and a fancy house with a huge mortgage. That’s their path for life. I set my own priorities. I never wanted to be a prisoner of my profession.
How did that work in your personal life?
I was married and have two children. I’m divorced now, but my girlfriend of nine years [Granis Stewart] is also an adventurer. She actually holds the world’s record in free-dive spearfishing and just bicycled solo through New Zealand and Tasmania. She lives in Rhode Island and works as an intensive-care nurse in Boston. I’m in New York. But it works somehow. We both have the same kind of spirit.
What’s next for you?
This summer I’m going with an archeologist friend to explore some undocumented caves in the Peruvian Andes with Inca funerary markings in them.
Recently I was in the Yucatan scuba diving in cenotes — sinkholes filled with fresh water and interconnected by a cave system. The lighting creates absolutely spectacular colors. You can understand why the Mayans worshipped them. There’s a real spiritual sense of an otherworldly presence. I’m actually writing a novel about it, putting Western characters into the Mayan civilization to learn.
You never reached Everest’s summit. Will you go back?
No. I came within 900 feet, but we turned back for various mountain-climbing reasons. It was a smart decision.
Before I do something I always ask, “If I can never tell anybody, do I still want to do it?” It’s a good question to ask about anything because it tells you your motivation. I feel I could have reached the summit with different conditions so that satisfies me. I don’t need that last 900 feet.
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