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280 climbers, two medics, few resources: how ITBP doctor scaled Covid at Everest

The Everest had just reopened after a gap of a year because of the pandemic and climbers from around the world, with their Sherpas, had crowded the camp waiting for a window to trek to the world's highest peak.

Dr Tarun Rana at the Mt Everest base camp

BETWEEN the last week of April and late May, as the frigid Mount Everest base camp turned into a hotspot for the novel coronavirus, a senior medical officer and deputy commander with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) found on his hands a Himalayan task. The Everest had just reopened after a gap of a year because of the pandemic and climbers from around the world, with their Sherpas, had crowded the camp waiting for a window to trek to the world’s highest peak.

One of just two qualified medical practitioners at the base camp, Dr Tarun Rana would end up treating about 200 Covid cases, relying largely on a single 10-litre medical oxygen cylinder, some life-saving drugs and steroid injections, with oxygen having to be rationed and adverse conditions at the altitude of over 5,600 metres making any evacuations difficult.

Rana was part of a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) team planning to climb Mt Lhotse (8,516 metres), the fourth-highest peak in the world, as well as Mt Everest (8,849 m). Eventually, while Covid-19 and bad weather forced the team to abort the Everest plan, three of the climbers managed to scale Mt Lhotse. Rana found himself roped in to lend medical expertise even as he managed to climb Mt Labouche (6,116 m) as part of a training segment.

With so many people from across the world at the camp, the doctor says they can say little about how the virus spread. “There were almost 280 climbers of which about 200 were suspected Covid-19 cases. About 20 patients were pretty serious,” he tells The Indian Express.

One of them was a fellow CAPF team member. As he was not responding to antibiotics or steroid injections, a decision was taken to evacuate him to a Kathmandu hospital. However, the tense wait stretched to days, Rana says. “The helicopter service could not operate in bad weather.”

The ITBP officer says he also struggled with malfunctioning medical equipment, even while needing to take decisions regarding who was Covid-positive based on symptoms alone, for lack of a proper test. “I had a pulse oximeter but at such high altitude it didn’t work accurately. So I could not depend on it. Also because of the low temperature (minus 20 to 25 degrees C at night) cough and cold are common. I could not deduce Covid-19 based on that and hence those who had high fever and headache as additional symptoms were isolated. There were many people who had pneumonia-like symptoms as well,” Rana says.

To ensure medical oxygen didn’t run out, Rana rationed oxygen canisters brought by the climbers. Those isolated in tents were constantly monitored and meals brought to them.

Nepal’s Department of Tourism had at the time claimed the situation was under control. In late May, a week before the Everest climbing season ended, a director at the Department of Tourism, Mira Acharya, told Reuters: “Even some climbers whose teams had stopped climbing are continuing their expeditions. There is no panic among the climbers there. If there were a few cases they were managed in time and are well.”

Among those mountaineers who tested positive on his return to Kathmandu — after successfully climbing Everest despite a bad cough — was Iran’s Amin Dehghan. A member of the Seven Summits Treks expedition team, he credits Rana with helping him achieve the feat, which he did on May 12. “He gave me good advice and medicines. I was better. Maybe I had Covid at that point, but I could climb the summit. I consulted the Indian doctor again once I came down as a precaution. In Kathmandu when I was tested, I was positive,” Dehghan told The Indian Express.

Anmish Varma, among the climbers at the base camp, says the spread of Covid left them all anxious. While he himself didn’t have any symptoms, he says, “Those who were ill were lucky that Dr Rana was at the base camp.”

His first attempt at scaling Everest had to be aborted at 8,000 metres-plus when his Sherpa started bleeding from the nose and mouth and fainted. “I came back to the base camp and waited and then went back,” Varma says, finally planting the flag on the peak on June 1, the last day of the season.

Rana admits he spent many anxious hours during that month. “I was the doctor and didn’t want to get infected. My aim was to ensure that nobody died. I was worried that if people who needed evacuation were not taken to Kathmandu quickly their condition would deteriorate. I had assistance from pharmacist Suresh Choudhary but I knew my limitations.”

He came back happy that there were no deaths on his watch, and that he had completed the training mission along with the team and climbed Mt Lobuche, in his first-ever expedition.

“Next time,” Dr Rana says, “hopefully there won’t be Covid cases and we will scale Mt Everest.”

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