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A veterinarian’s view from the highest peak on the planet

Veterinarian Lance S. Fox knew a good bit about climbing mountains even before he started his trek to Mount Everest, thanks to his time in veterinary school.

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Dr. Lance Fox, prepping for his trek up Mount Everest.


Veterinarian Lance S. Fox knew a good bit about climbing mountains even before he started his trek to Mount Everest, thanks to his time in veterinary school. Dr. Fox will be speaking at this summer’s AVMA Annual Convention, where members of the American Veterinary Medical Association will gather for the latest in veterinary medicine, and Animal Health SmartBrief asked for a sneak peek of his talk and a window into his life-changing trek to the Himalayas and up Mount Everest, documented in his book, “No Place but UP!” Dr. Fox obtained his veterinary degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, and he has worked in private practice and now serves as technical director in North America with the Animal Nutrition & Health division of DSM. You can learn more at his website. A DVM’s perspective on the highest point on Earth … I knew Everest would be hard, second only to making it through veterinary school. What I mean is, I had to focus on the rock just ahead, not the summit far away. School was similar, as it often meant getting through the next exam, and before I knew it, clinic rotations had arrived. That meant working on live animals, finally! I’ll bet the veterinarians reading this can relate. And my passion as a veterinarian carried along with me deep into the Himalayas as I fell in love with the yaks and other animals owned by the Sherpa people. I get a chuckle out of people calling me the “yak doctor,” although I don’t claim to be a yak expert by any means. The physiological challenges of life at high altitude … Ironically, the last day of the nine-day trek into Mount Everest base camp caused me to incur pretty severe altitude sickness. The funny thing about AS is you never know when it might strike and to whom. I thought my trip was over before I even stepped foot on Everest itself, having lost eight pounds in the first 48 hours in camp. But then my body got stronger, and I only suffered minor GI issues from time to time on the mountain. Up high, though, I lost another 22 pounds, primarily in the form of one pound of muscle mass per day. With 25%-30% of the atmospheric pressure on the summit vs. sea level, the body goes into survival mode and literally eats itself to stay alive. On his work with yaks and the people of the Himalayas … I am happy to say that in January 2014, Healthy Yak was approved by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. My desire to first work on the yaks of the Sherpa culture back in 2009 was a direct result of not only my upbringing but the vow I took as a veterinarian to promote the health and well-being of all animals. A return trip to the Khumbu Valley (the valley leading up to Everest in Nepal from the village of Lukla where one of the world’s most dangerous airports is located) occurred in 2011, where our work expanded to include horses, dogs and a few other animals owned by the Sherpa. I, along with a team of veterinarians and one or two fourth-year veterinary students, will be returning to the valley in October 2014 to continue the work, expanding our services there even further. I have even hired the services of a local Nepal-trained Veterinary and Agriculture Technician who lives high in the mountains and actually helped during the 2011 project. On his future as a “yak whisperer” … Yaks are essentially hairy cows, or that is what I tell most of my listeners. They are vital to the livelihood of the Sherpa. Yaks help to porter goods between the villages nestled deep within the Himalaya Mountains. Their wool is used to make clothing, and lastly, the female yaks’ (actually referred to as naks) milk is processed into cheese for consumption by the Sherpa. The strategic deworming program initiated in 2009 improved the production of these beautiful animals. Needless to say, no restraint exists in the stone-walled paddocks where yaks graze and/or are housed, so I am working on my skills as a “yak whisperer.” Joking aside, all of the animals of the Khumbu are benefiting from our efforts, not to mention the Sherpa people as well. What attendees will hear more of at the convention … One day, we woke up and something that day sparked our interest in becoming a veterinarian and/or animal caregiver. That is what I like to refer to as an “Everest.” We all have them. That need to dream and achieve. Whether it be to become a veterinarian or climb a mountain, my single greatest hope is that convention-goers will see that dreams do come true and challenges can be overcome. Mountain or hill, it’s about the will.