By Molly Loomis
In 1999, emergency room doctor Luanne Freer was invited on a volunteer medical mission to a remote Himalayan village in Nepal. Upon her group's arrival, Freer was greeted by 600 villagers, many of whom had walked for days just to be seen at the clinic. "They were lacking basic healthcare," Freer says. "I felt like I could offer something meaningful." Back in her home base of Montana, Freer found herself eager to return to Nepal.
Three years later, while volunteering at a clinic in Pheriche, Nepal, Freer hiked to Everest Base Camp. She discovered that only a few of the climbing expedition teams there included doctors with high-altitude training. Freer, who had the requisite knowledge from her years working in the Northern Rockies, was even more dismayed to learn that the area's native Sherpa and Rai populations were sometimes turned away by the foreign expeditions' doctors. She was determined to find a way to provide better medical care to both climbers and the hundreds of Nepalese working on Everest.
In the spring of 2003, Freer founded Everest E.R. -- a small clinic at Base Camp that operates during the two-and-a-half-month climbing season. The clinic supplies free and heavily subsidized medical care to locals by charging climbing teams a nominal fee. During its first year, Freer dealt with malfunctioning equipment and flooding (in addition to freezing temperatures and no electricity). But the memory of the first life she saved -- a Nepali porter dying of cerebral edema—brought her back the following year. Since then the clinic has continued to grow: In 2003 it treated 84 patients; in 2012 it saw 570. Today nearly every expedition relies on Everest E.R. for medical care. But Freer, 55, says her connections with the local people are the greatest reward of all. "I have tangible evidence that I've made a difference in someone's life," she says. "If I never picked up another stethoscope, I would still feel complete."