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Bringing health care to the Himalayas

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Pulmonary edema, pterygium, acetazolamide--all words that Chris Nevala-Plagemann spent his first year at the University of Minnesota medical school trying to memorize for exams. On a month-long trip to India in August, his exams were replaced by actual, living patients.

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Pterygium is the most common ailment of the residents of Ladakh, where Nevala-Plagemann spent the majority of his trip. It's a growth of tissue on the eyes caused by the bright sun, dry climate and constant winds of this Himalayan Mountain region.

"We saw a lot of 19- 20-year-old guys with it. If they don't start wearing sunglasses, in five to 10 years they'll be blind," Nevala-Plagemann said. The other most common ailment was osteoarthritis caused by lifelong physical labor.

Nevala-Plagemann, a graduate of Two Harbors High School, completed his Bachelor of Science degree at Luther College in Iowa before going on to medical school at the University of Minnesota. This trip was a volunteer expedition staffed by two doctors, two dentists and 26 medical and dental students. It's an annual undertaking that provides basic medical services to some of the most isolated people in the world.

"They're the most grateful people you'll ever meet," Nevala-Plagemann said.

Most of the tasks were routine, such as doling out multivitamins to malnourished kids, pulling problem teeth and treating burns or cuts. Nevala-Plagemann had the unglamorous job of cleaning wax out of the ear of one monk, whose hearing improved dramatically after the treatment.

The difficult part for the doctors was diagnosing and treating serious illnesses and conditions like cancer or hernias. The nearest medical facility where hernia repair surgery could be performed was a four-day walk for some villagers. Cancer treatment was even more improbable, if not impossible, for most of the patients they saw.

The group providing medical care dealt with its own fair share of health issues. One med student had to be airlifted out of the mountains by the Indian army after fluid built up in her lungs--a side effect of the extreme 12,000 foot altitude. Another day, the majority of the camp came down with food-poisoning.

"I was completely fine so I thought it was pretty hilarious, but they didn't," Nevala-Plagemann said.

He wasn't laughing when the dry heat and wind led to an abrasion in the back of his throat during a hiking commute to a new village. He was coughing up blood for most of the trek.

The group hiked over a hundred miles during their three-week journey. They would set up their portable clinic and tents, spend a day or two in each village and then move on to the next site. They were accompanied by about 40 mules, a cook, a guide and a monk who acted as translator. The dialect changed from village to village and very few people in the area spoke English--a challenge when providing medical care. Despite the difficulties, Nevala-Plagemann learned a lot about his field.

"It was cool to actually practice real medicine," he said.

Language barriers weren't their only obstacle. They dealt with a tornado in one village, where Nevala-Plagemann narrowly dodged a table hurtling through the air at his head. Later, the medical team witnessed a group of French hikers and their horses tumble into the water just a few hundred yards away when the hanging bridge they were crossing flipped over (they turned up downstream unharmed). Finally, when they were on the home stretch out of the mountains, a rock slide interfered with their bus route and the students stood side-by-side with the Indian army, pushing boulders off of the road in the middle of a rain storm.

"It was absolutely terrifying," Nevala-Plagemann said.

Nevala-Plagemann celebrated his birthday in India, and the cooks accompanying their group quietly slipped into town to purchase the supplies for a surprise birthday feast, complete with cake and beer. Nevala-Plagemann called it one of the best, most memorable birthdays of his life, taking his cue from the locals and appreciating the small things.

"They live so simply but they're so happy," Nevala-Plagemann said.

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LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141
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