Across the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, screams echoed through the Capirona trees. A gaping wound. Huddled flashlights overhead. Agony. Tears streaming. Blood running. Ken Kamler gently laid the injured boy in the mud, administered local anesthetics, and prepped for surgery. Slowly, the boy came to terms with the pain of his macheted arm as the numbness overtook it. He had made it. He had made it to safety: his screams testament the human will to survive. Kamler began to operate.
The child had been clearing weeds from under a canoe with a machete when he took a miss-hit and cut into his own arm. He sprinted from his village in search of help and stumbled upon Kamler, an orthopedic hand surgeon commonly known as the adventure doctor.
“What are the chances of growing up in the middle of the Amazon, injuring yourself, and then finding a fully equipped hand surgeon in the jungle?” Kamler said. “From his point of view, it must have been a miracle.”
On the night of the Amazon incident, Kamler had traveled to Ecuador as the attending physician for a group of biologists who study crocodile behavior. During nightly expeditions, he stocked his toolkit with supplies to mend crocodile bites assuming, as the scientists wrestled beastly amphibians into wobbly canoes, that he would need to be prepared to stitch them back together.
“When I travel, it never seems to be my group that gets injured, I’ve always taken care of people near me,” Kamler said. “Which is good because otherwise I would get the reputation of ‘don’t go with that guy because something is going to happen.’”
At Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Little Neck (where Kamler practices) we mused about miracles over coffee and cashews. The surrounding neighborhood: idyllic yet dismissed, with white picket fences and lawns giving way to graffitied walls and chain link fences. It’s hard to tell without traveling farther if the area is a pseudo-oasis sandwiched between Jamaica and the Bronx or if it’s a transitional region en route to nuclear family housing plantations farther north.
Inside his office, the walls white and sterile bounced light upward like the reflecting snows of Everest depicted in photos stationed around the room. Atop a single peak, Kamler smiles alongside his comrades: the frozen moment now a single, happy memory captured before disaster.
To be trite, you could say Kamler has done it all. He’s ventured to the farthest corners of Bhutan to assay health conditions; performed surgery in a NASA undersea analogue space capsule; and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as the expedition doctor for a division of the US army. He doesn’t have the pretentious attitude of someone who has climbed Everest six times and he’s as wide-eyed about the unexplainable medical mysteries of his career as the average person. Maybe even more so.
Unlike other globetrotters who seem to mentally venture off to their next destination, Kamler has a unique presentness of being; perhaps because his career mandates he stay focused on the task at hand. This is also why he said he loves ice climbing.
A doctor of serendipitous circumstances, Kamler is accustomed to witnessing miracles — some at the fait of his own fingertips, others beyond his explanation. He’s seen a sherpa suffer near-fatal head injuries after falling into an ice crevasse on Everest, reach the brink of death, and then come back to life.
On his first medical expedition in Sierra Chincua, Peru, life suddenly summoned him to his career in extreme medicine when a rickety truck tumbled down a cliff edge into a ravine and ejected its passengers.
“I realized then, ‘we hadn’t even started the expedition and already I’m going to be the doctor!’” Kamler said.
As a medical intern in his early twenties, he had not received specialized emergency training at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. So, in anticipation of his trip to Peru, he prepared index cards detailing potential treatments from curing athlete’s foot to diagnosing a subdural hematoma. Kamler carried the index cards in his pocket while on the expedition.
“That gave me a good sense of confidence because I figured I could always just pull out the cards,” Kamler said. That day, he wouldn’t have predicted his final procedure: sewing up a goat that was injured in the crash.
In life, as in nature, conditions create unpredictable outcomes, even in Kamler’s life. Growing up in middle income housing projects in the Bronx, he did not foresee the life of adventure he has come to have.
The first mountain he ever climbed, he jokes, was his father’s bookshelf. When he was six years old, he examined the spine of a distant text entitled Annapurna, which summoned his attention from the top shelf. So one day, shelf by shelf, he ascended the the incline to retrieve it. The book turned out to be a classic mountaineering story about climbing the highest peak in Nepal’s Himalayan range.
“No one in the Bronx mountain climbed, so I really had no access,” Kamler, who once dreamed of being an astronaut, said. “I realized that I could do a lot of exploration through a microscope … and that lead me into biology and then into medicine, but I never lost this idea of exploring big open places.”
The morning before we met, he completed four hand surgeries including a tumor removal and repair to a woman’s broken hand after she punched a wall. Normally, he said, he packs his weekly surgery schedule with six to eight operations with enough time in between each one to wheel in the next patient. He also swims laps every morning at five a.m.
Many may recognize Kamler as the primary physician (or as he claims, the only physician) on site during the 1996 Everest disaster popularized by Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. On May 10, several expedition teams attempted to summit Everest when a fierce blizzard struck the mountain, killing eight climbers. It became popularized as, “the most devastating mountaineering disaster in recorded history.”
Kamler recalls from that day an incredible tale of survival — that of American climber Beck Weathers who was left for dead face down in the snow.
“Another climber descending in the storm had passed Beck … and he looked at him and said, ‘he’s dead’ and kept on going,” Kamler said.
On the second day, however, Weathers staggered toward camp three at 24,000 feet after summoning an incredible will to survive. Kamler treated him for frostbite, hypothermia, and cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) with steroid injections straight through his clothes after Kamler warmed the syringes in his armpit.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kamler said. “He was so with it that he said, ‘Do you accept my health insurance?”
Treating Weathers on site, Kamler remembers, wasn’t an isolated challenge; evacuating him and the rest of the survivors would mean their risking lives as unrelenting poor weather conditions persisted.
They ordered an emergency ‘over ice’ evacuation wherein the helicopter pilot flew beyond safe limitations at 19,000 feet to rescue them. To reach the climbers, the pilot bounced the helicopter along patches of ice eventually landing where someone from the camp marked an X between crevasses with Kool Aid in the snow.
“Mountain climbing reduces life to its essentials,” Kamler. “It’s a sport that tests what you are made of and you find out that you have more to you than you think. That’s the value of it even though it’s risky.”
Two weeks after Kamler performed emergency surgery in the Amazon, he returned to the boy’s village to find him atop a thatched hut constructing a new roof. He maneuvered about the structure with both hands as if the incident never occurred, his injured hand completely healed. Kamler was again astounded.
“The human body is the most complex system in the entire universe, there’s nothing even close. You talk about quasars or black holes or quantum mechanics … nothing has more mysteries. So, being a doctor is an adventure.”