From the heights of K2 to the war struck Syrian-Jordan border, Albert (Skip) Edmonds’ journey is one of intrigue and insight. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to hear his story.
As the son of a pediatrician, medicine presented itself as a likely career path for Skip at an early age, although his route was somewhat circuitous. Upon graduating from Williams College, he pursued oceanographic research in the Antarctic. He spent 200 days at sea, south of Australia in a 200-foot vessel, stomaching choppy waters. During this time, he was also able to pursue his love for mountaineering in the mountains of New Zealand.
After a year in the Antarctic, Skip was faced with a decision: Continue with oceanography and get a PhD, or pursue an MD. The variety of opportunities in medicine ultimately won out and Skip headed to Virginia for medical school.
Early in his career as a practicing physician, Skip put his mountaineering skills to the ultimate test as part of the first American expedition to K2 in 1978. Led by Jim Whitaker of REI, the group was 14 people strong. It was a long trip, beginning in mid-June and lasting well into October. Skip remembers the toughest elements being the weather and the confinement, not to mention dehydration and limited oxygen. Just when the group’s food supply was on the brink of depletion, there was a break in the weather and two groups of two made it to the summit in two successive days, marking the first American ascent of K2 and the third overall ascent.
After many years practicing medicine in Seattle, Skip was ready to retire. It was then that an opportunity to join Doctors Without Borders (DWB) presented itself. Skip was at his cabin in 2010 when the Haiti earthquake struck, and he immediately realized his skill set would be useful. He sent in his application to DWB and went through a rigorous selection process. DWB is very careful in selecting its members, and for good reason. Electricity is intermittent and the living conditions are tough. Experiencing third world medicine is a shock for most American physicians, and DWB wants to make sure each physician can not only handle it, but will want to come back for a second mission. Surgical missions are typically in trauma zones and last about a month, with physicians working around the clock. Non-surgical missions last 3-6 months and have a less intense daily schedule.
Skip says it’s the individual patients you remember the most. There is one 7-year-old Nigerian boy he remembers well. The boy was hit by a car and, after a dozen surgeries, lost both of his legs to infection. Despite his trial, the boy always had a smile for Skip and his colleagues and appreciated their work.
In 2012 he was stationed on the Syrian-Jordan border during the Syrian civil war. They could see the bombs going off a few kilometers away and patients were pouring in. It was an emotionally challenging experience. Skip and his team attempted to save one woman for over a month, and Skip recalled how brave she was to endure. Unfortunately, the infection eventually took her life.
His advice for physicians who are thinking about joining DWB is to do your homework. Make sure you understand it will be harder than you think. Something will come around the corner, either medically or culturally, that will shock you. In the end, Skip always learns an incredible amount on his missions. And, he takes home more than he is able to give back.
Skip’s advice for life in general is to find something that occupies your head and that you love to do. It will take you away from the stresses of medicine, allowing you to unplug, decompress and approach your work with a clear head. For Skip, this is rock climbing because it takes total focus and concentration and doesn’t allow him to worry about the daily stresses of life.
The best piece of financial advice Skip ever received was to not try and do it himself. When the tech bubble popped in 1999 that became clear. Skip was in his late 40s at the time and lost half of his retirement nest egg. Later, he entrusted money to a friend and got burned. All in all, he had little interest for investing and therefore was not going to stay on top of it. Hiring a financial advisor allowed him to focus more on the things he really enjoys, like rock climbing.