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Defining Moment

I had planned to climb Aconcagua Mountain in Argentina during winter break. I had done similar mountain climbing treks in the past and knew that the technical difficulty was average. What lay ahead of me was two weeks of camping and hiking, with a goal of summiting the peak at 22,800 feet.

The trip started off very well, with a group of well diversified people – 6 in total. We enjoyed Christmas Eve on the mountain with good weather , looking forward to a fantastic experience on the mountain. Everything had gone well during the first week.

On the 7th day, after a bad night in a storm, I woke up tired and hungry, but healthy. Fortunately it was a rest day, so after breakfast I headed to my tent for a nap. Four hours later, I woke up extremely tired and could hardly breathe. I tried using pattern-breathing, but also had a terrible headache and nausea. I knew what these symptoms meant: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

Luckily there was a camp doctor in the next tent. He looked very annoyed and told me in Spanish, “You have a fever, high blood pressure, a fast-paced heart rate, pneumonia and a pulmonary edema. You’re screwed.” Then started chastising my guide for not noticing earlier that I was not healthy.

A pulmonary edema is an extreme reaction to lack of oxygen. The lungs start swelling and secreting fluids that fill your lungs and impede your breathing. It can lead to death in a matter of hours or days as you drown in your own fluids. The only solution is to go down to a lower altitude and rest.

By now I was in a pretty bad state – half of my left lung was full of liquid. Meanwhile, there was a storm outside and night was about to come. There was no way to get me to a low-enough altitude in time, as it would take about two days for a mule to come and get me. No helicopter could come either; there was a windy storm outside. I had to stay at least sixteen more hours at this altitude, wait for dawn and hope that the s
As a temporary measure, climbers often use strong medications to help the body sustain the effort to breath, and to slow the progression of the
edema.

The doctor showed me some medication and asked me if I was allergic to it. Of course, I did not know. We started the injections and the pills and I prayed.

Four hours later, he came to check on the state of my health. It was even worse; I could hardly speak or swallow anything. Thinking was becoming hard and I was at about 50% of oxygen level in my blood. The doctors diagnosed that the edema was progressing very quickly, and my left lung was now useless. They feared that the right lung might get an edema too. In that case, I would only have about eight hours to live.
The next option was to to put me in a hyperbaric chamber. This simulates a lower-altitude atmosphere but would not help me recover. It was just a way to buy time. Luckily they had such a chamber.
I had to sit upright to avoid having the fluids at the bottom of my lungs and to help me breathe better. I had about twelve hours to go. I hoped my name would not be added to the list of casualties that occur each year on this mountain.

During this time, I thought a lot about the importance of making the most out of life. I also thought about how good my life was, and all the ones I love whom I might be leaving in a few hours. I wanted to write a note to my family, but I could hardly articulate my thoughts on a paper. I was now conscious of my vegetable-like state. I waited and waited and waited.

The storm ended around 2am. I had some more injections and pills. I hoped the storm would not start again – I need about five more hours of good weather to last.

Dawn came and my right lung was now infected. I was only breathing with half a lung in a high altitude atmosphere. Fortunately the weather remained clear and the helicopter came in time. Two men carried me in the helicopter and brought me to lower altitude, where an ambulance was waiting for me. I spent a few days in the hospital recovering.
I have a different look at today’s dilemmas. Searching for a job or an internship, getting dinged 50 times, reading 20 pages cases all seem to be the most important things while you are in school. However, having survived this near-death experience and taking time to reflect upon it and step outside of myself, I realize these daily school routines are only one small part of life.

I appreciate the fact that I am alive and can participate in all these things, at all; but, I also realize the importance of showing my appreciation for other things – like health, family and friends.

February 4, 2002
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