In a valiant example of “extreme science”, 12 children from the UK recently took part in an Everest expedition that aimed to help doctors better understand how to treat critically ill youngsters.
On the Xtreme Everest expedition, which was led by researchers and doctors from University College London (UCL) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), the trekkers reached altitudes of 3,500 metres. They went from Lukla to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.
The children, aged from 8 to 16, were assessed in London before they set off, to gather data about their normal body states so it could then be compared to measures taken on the trek at high altitude.
Mark Peters, Intensive Care Consultant at GOSH, led the medical team on the expedition. He says:
“The testing we are doing is a world first, because at high altitude we can isolate the effect of low oxygen on otherwise healthy children.”
By understanding how kids do well at low oxygen levels, then they can apply that knowledge to the ones who are in intensive care, he explains.
Former GOSH patient Jack Elliot Major, aged 9, was one of the 12 children. He was born with a condition that blocked his bowel, but after a successful operation at GOSH, he is now a healthy boy.
Jack’s father, Lee Elliot Major, says in a report of the expedition on a GOSH blog, that the family has stayed in touch with the charity since the operation, and he now serves on an advisory panel that represents parents and past patients.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip — getting to see the world’s highest mountain — but also contributing to a really exciting medical study that has the potential to help other children in intensive care in GOSH and other hospitals,” he explains.
Life at the top was very basic: there was no heating, no clean water, no electricity. Jack was sick too, but seemed fine when he wasn’t vomiting, his father hastens to add.
“At times I was concerned that he may get weak, and it was a long walk back at that point! But he didn’t complain once,” he says.
The data collected included heart rate, blood flow, and other vital measurements, and took about three hours per child.
Now that they have the data, the medical team hopes it will help answer some key questions, such as:
- Do muscles extract oxygen more efficiently at high altitude?
- Do they “learn” and alter molecular pathways in order to increase efficiency?
“We know that tissue dies when it doesn’t get enough oxygen, but we also know that too much oxygen can be damaging, so we hope our findings will help us to optimize the delivery of oxygen to patients in a critical condition,” explains Peters.
When they got back, apparently Jack turned to his dad and said:
“Dad, this is not so much a holiday as an adventure!”
His father says, that just about summed it up, “It will stay in our memories for the rest of our lives.”
The expedition is a good example of “extreme medicine”, where experts like Peters and volunteers like Jack and his father, either through choice or circumstance, find themselves physically challenged in extreme environments, whether up mountains, in outer space, at the poles, in deserts, deep under the sea, or in combat zones.