Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yaks, medivacs and love in the Himalayas

I met Jeremy in 1999 in Kathmandu, Nepal. I had just graduated from college with an ever so useful degree in Sociology, a love for travel and a need to escape a relationship that I couldn't seem to extricate myself from. I landed an amazing job as program coordinator working with Helping Hands (can you tell I just figured out how to put links in?), an organization that brought medical students and physicians to Nepal to volunteer in health clinics. There I am holding what I swear is the fattest baby ever born to a Nepali.

To say I wasn't looking for a relationship would be an understatement. To say I was looking to have fun, find myself, and hook up with as many cute boys as possible along the way would be a smidge more accurate.

I lived in Kathmandu, in that building over there, and traveled all over the country. Jeremy came to volunteer. We hooked up. I thought he was cute. I also noted that he was brilliant, troubled, taken and appealing. He went home.

Then he started calling. From a cell phone. To Nepal!

My parents hadn't even called me - it took a lot of determination to get through, and a lot of spare change to pay the phone bill. I continued my life as usual in Nepal, slightly turned off by his persistence but mostly unconcerned since he was 12 time zones away.

Then he announced that he was coming back. He would be there over my 22nd birthday, and did I want to trek Everest with him. Uh....ok, sure - fun hooking up and all, how's your girlfriend, riigghhhttt.....

Back he came. Slightly intrigued was I, but mostly just interested in fun. We trekked the Everest region which involved flying Buddha Air (I shit you not) to the shortest commercial runway in the world (so short, in fact, that it is sloped up hill just to make sure you stop before slamming into a Himalaya). We had fun, we saw Yaks and avalanches and I got altitude sickness and barfed Power Bar and tuna fish all over Jeremy. We stopped one night in a tea house in Pengboche. That evening we talked with a lovely French couple on vacation from their 3 young kids to trek to Base Camp, which they were on their way down from. Momos and TungBa were had, and then sleep.

In the morning the french woman was coughing as she walked down the stairs into the main eating room. She came in and collapsed - fell to the floor, unconscious. Her husband and Jeremy rushed to her side - "il est un medic" I explained to her husband. "He is a doctor". This was not true. Jeremy was a 4th year med student. Having just graduated college I didn't know anyone who in med school so I didn't understand the different levels of training and also didn't understand that Jeremy's 4th year med student status made him book smart but lacking in direct patient care experience.

Jeremy somehow discerned that she had HAPE, high altitude pulmonary edema, or fluid in her lungs. We needed to get her lower in altitude. Since she was dead weight and we were strapped for resources of any kind we sent one person to the closest village with a phone (about an hour's run) to call for a helicopter and were planning to use a ladder as a gurney to carry her down into the valley below the village. The ladder was acquired and duck tape was ready to secure the still unconscious woman. With Jeremy and I at her head and her husband and another trekker at her feet we lifted her up to place her on the ladder. She bolted up, still unconscious, made a weird groan/coughing sound, flopped back down and stopped breathing.

It all seemed so surreal. Jeremy started CPR which he would continue for the next 2 hours until the helicopter arrived. She was dead. This woman who we had talked with the night before, who had strolled into the breakfast room and who had said nothing to her husband about feeling bad the previous evening, was dead. She had a family at home waiting for her and she was dead. Her husband was yelling and crying and there was nothing any of us could do. There were no drugs to be had (I did go around to all the guest houses to ask if any trekkers were carrying epinephrine - no luck), I didn't know CPR, so I sat with the husband and said nothing. After about an hour of CPR, when the woman's face was white and purple and she was getting stiff, Jeremy asked the husband if he wanted to continue CPR. The husband said yes and so Jeremy did. An hour after that the helicopter arrived. We put her back on the ladder, carried her out, and her husband flew away. I don't even know their names.

Jeremy was amazing. He was calm and in control the whole miorning. He wore himself out doing CPR he knew would have no effect. He assessed the situation quickly and accurately and made all the right decisions. He was kind and compassionate with the husband. He wrote a note to send with the corpse explaining what had happened. Once the helicopter was gone we packed our packs and started trekking. That night we stopped at a village with a monastery and watched the sun set while the monks chanted. We both cried.

I think I fell in love with Jeremy that day. I still wasn't interested in a relationship. And it wasn't one of those "we experienced this intense situation together and that is what bonds us" things, either. It was what I saw in him that day. I saw how deeply he felt things, how brilliant his mind was, how insecure he was. I think that that day I saw Jeremy - who he was in his soul.

In the years that followed (that was 1999 and although we kept in touch and dated on and off we weren't really "serious" until 2002) when we would get in huge fights, when ex girlfriends would show up in the middle of the night, when we would live on opposite coasts, when I would date other people, that knowledge of who Jeremy truly was never left my mind. I saw it in him even when I never wanted to see him again. I still see it in him. It's a little different now - some of the insecurity is gone, the depression has diminished, he is smarter and more able to be open, but basically he is the same person he was at the tea house in Pengboche.

It is an amazing feeling to look at this man with whom I now share a life with and see the same boy I fell in love with that day in the mountains 9 years ago.



Amalia said...

Wow E! What a lovely post...tragic as well, but I love what you wrote about Jeremy...xoxoxo

anymommy said...

You made me cry. Beautiful.