Extreme Medicine Man

Dr. Kenneth Kamler, author of “Surviving the Extremes.”

If it weren’t for the physical and mental limits of the human body, climbing Mount Everest or traversing the Sahara desert would be relatively straightforward. That explains why the stories of daring outdoor enthusiasts are compelling; these adventurers push—and sometimes push past—the boundaries of what the human body can endure.

Dr. Kenneth Kamler knows all about what it takes to survive in the most hostile environmental conditions. Although he makes his living as a surgeon, he’s best known for the work he does outside the office—namely, serving as expedition doctor on countless ventures to the most remote parts of the globe. In the course of his travels, Kamler has treated patients (natives and explorers alike) everywhere from the Andes to the Amazon to Antarctica. In the process he’s encountered everything from spider bites to statue-like frozen limbs, and learned a number of unlikely medical techniques—such as how to close wounds using the jaws of soldier ants.

In his book “Surviving The Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey To The Limits Of Human Endurance” (St. Martin’s Press), Kamler relates many of his most rarified experiences, taking time to examine how humans react and adapt to extreme circumstances, adding a unique twist to the outdoor adventure page-turner.

What prompted you to write “Surviving the Extremes”?
I’ve been the doctor on every expedition I’ve been on. When I come back people are always interested in where I’ve been and what it’s like to endure extreme environments. I thought it would be fascinating to explain how the human body can adapt—or not—to these environments. The body is endlessly fascinating and it’s amazing the strategies we have to adapt to places where we don’t belong. I just thought that would make a great combination—the open spaces of the world and the inner spaces of the body.

How did you get started in expedition work?
Since I was a little kid I’ve always been interested in exploring. I grew up in New York and there weren’t any mountains for me to explore nor did I know anybody who had ever done that kind of thing. So I turned my interest in exploring into a fascination with the microscope. In fact, I stayed with that my whole life and I’m now a micro-surgeon. But I never gave up the idea of visiting the wide-open spaces. When I was eight years old I read [Maurice Herzog’s] “Annapurna”—-a classic mountaineering book. It’s the story of what was, at that time, the highest mountain ever climbed. It just captivated me. As I got older I decided to take climbing lessons so I could get myself into those environs, and I did. Obviously, being a doctor people were going to turn to me when something went wrong. It wouldn’t be enough to say, “I only do micro-surgery. I can’t take care of a broken leg.” So I made a real effort to learn as much as I could about the kinds of problems people would encounter on expeditions. I became somewhat of a repository of information and people began to turn to me for that information. That allowed me to go on even more expeditions because people like to have me around.

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