Whistler doctor meets Everest challenges 

Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell experienced hardships, heroism and ambitions at base camp

Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell at Base Camp, with Mount Everest in the background.
  • Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell at Base Camp, with Mount Everest in the background.

By Lynn Martel

On her first night at the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, where she had volunteered to treat patients for the two-month spring climbing season, Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell discovered her tent sat next to a major yak route.

Very quickly she realized how challenging life at the clinic — consisting of a small two-man tent as her private sleeping quarters, a large tube-shaped tent housing the clinic and a kitchen/dining building with stacked rock walls and a blue tarp roof — would be.

Though most of April and May, Dr. Dunin-Bell, a part-time Whistler resident since the mid 1990s, who, when not enjoying the Coast Mountains, lives half the year in Oakville, Ontario, was the first Canadian physician to work at the clinic.

The experience, she said, presented an avalanche of challenges.

During their stay, Dr. Dunin-Bell and her colleague, Dr. Suzanne Boyle, an anaesthesiologist from Edinburgh, Scotland, moved their sleeping tents four times, while the kitchen walls repeatedly collapsed.

“We were right on the glacier, the mixed ice and rock flowing stream of the Khumbu Icefall,” Dr. Dunin-Bell said. “At night, we heard avalanches or rockfall every hour. I learned to sleep through it. The ground underneath really crackles and pops, everything is constantly shifting and expanding. In the daytime, if I heard the start of an avalanche, I stopped sticking my head out to look.”

The latrine consisted of blue barrels lined with plastic bags for solid waste only, since the charge for barrel removal is based on weight.

Asthmatic, Dr. Dunin-Bell returned to Canada with bronchitis and pneumonia.

“We were constantly dealing with weather and discomfort,” she said. “The month of April was, in a word, cold. We lived in down jackets practically the whole time. It was so much physically tougher than I would have thought.”

No newcomer to challenges, in 2003, after two decades as a general surgeon at Mississauga’s Credit Valley Hospital, Dr. Dunin-Bell left to teach at McMaster University and to work with Canadian Global Air Ambulance, flying international air evacuations of critically ill.

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