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Yale physicians link up with Everest expedition

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


In May, several dozen seasoned climbers set their sites on Everest, the world's highest mountain. As one group labored up the treacherous and often deadly slopes, Yale physicians made medical history in an experiment linking the remote expedition to the clinical resources of a medical center 8,000 miles away.

Vincent Grasso, M.D., a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Surgery, directed care at Everest as colleagues in New Haven monitored the climbers' adjustment to high altitude and thin air. Vest-like biopacks transmitted vital data from the slopes of the 29,028-foot mountain to the base camp at 17,000 feet, relaying the information to Yale by satellite phone and the Internet. A video connection allowed the two groups of physicians to talk face to face as, for example, Dr. Grasso examined a sherpa guide who was experiencing abdominal pain. Taking full advantage of the technology, images from a portable ultrasound unit were transmitted simultaneously allowing Dr. Grasso and the New Haven-based team to rule out major illness.

“This exercise will allow us to get a better understanding of changes in people's bodies as they are going through altitude changes. Hopefully we will begin recognizing predictive patterns,” says Peter B. Angood, M.D., assistant professor of surgery and New Haven-based medical director for the expedition. Dr. Angood and other Yale researchers participated in daily videoconferences with the expedition team and scientists at the MIT Media Lab, the U.S. Army, NASA and AT&T. In addition to testing the biopacks, the climbers have installed meteorological devices to transmit weather reports from Everest's slopes and global positioning equipment to measure the mountain's subtle shifts in elevation.

Dr. Ronald Merrell, chairman of surgery and director of the Yale Commercial Space Center, and Dr. Richard Satava, professor of surgery and a leading expert in telemedicine, initiated the Everest expedition's medical experiments.