Fall 2006 Currents > A Classroom High in the Himalayas
A Classroom High in the Himalayas
Story by: Currents Staff Writer
A Classroom High in the Himalayas
“This is a working trip with a specific research agenda; not a fun tourist program. Let's not forget the main reason we are going is to collect physiological data," Dr. Ted Wilson recalls reminding students as they prepared to set out on a 25-day travel study program to the Sikkimese Himalayan Mountains in northern India.
Many folks have experienced the physiological effects of high altitude on a vacation in Colorado at altitudes of 10-11,000 feet. Wilson's class explored the reasons why.
Wilson, a Winona State University biology professor, and 15 students aged 20-61 met once a week during the second half of spring semester to prepare for the Physiological Adaptation to High Altitude (PAHA) program journey. The group studied physiological responses to exposure to high altitude during a trek to Goecha La Pass, 16,000 feet above sea level, southeast of Mt. Everest in the Himalayas.
“We considered doing this research in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado," Wilson said. "For a number of reasons, it was more advantageous to visit India."
“First, there is more lightning in the Rockies, and believe me, you don't want to be in the mountains with lighting striking around you. Second, we can get to higher altitudes in the Himalayas. Financially it's only a little more expensive than a similar travel program in the U.S., because the dollar goes farther in India. Plus, there is the aspect of visiting, learning about, and respecting a completely different culture that is hard to quantify."
The class prepared for the trek through student presentations, guest lectures and technical instruction from health care professionals such as Dr. Eric Snyder at the Mayo Clinic Department of Cardiac Rehabilitation. Before departing, students practiced with the research equipment they would use while in the Himalayas. Some even found ways to modify the equipment for the environment with thin air and no electricity.
They also tested their own physical preparedness for the grueling journey by hiking up Sugar Loaf in Winona with fully-loaded backpacks, simulating conditions they would face in the Himalayas.
On May 7, Ted Wilson and his group flew to Dehli, India, followed by two weeks of trekking. They returned home on June 1.
“We had fun," Wilson said, "but this was serious research that will result in presentations at regional and national conferences. One of the students who participated in this kind of program two years ago now studies at the Medical School of Milwaukee and is doing further research that directly stemmed from this class."
Wilson said the group worked well as a team; each with a designated part of the research. A couple of students focused on heart rate, others looked at respiration, measured blood-oxygen levels, or supervised step tests to evaluate the effect of altitude on exercise performance.
“A step test is difficult for some people at sea level," Wilson said. "Imagine the challenge of doing the step test at 14,000 feet with less oxygen."
In addition to collecting data on their own physiological responses to altitude, the group tested their guides, who live and work in the region, for clues on how the body adapts to prolonged exposure to high elevations.
“Surprisingly, the measurements we got from the guides were similar to what we saw in ourselves near the end of the journey," Wilson explained. "We adapted quickly, within a matter of days, to the extreme conditions."
Krista Wells, a senior allied health and pre-physical therapy major from Brookfield, Wis., said everyone on the trip felt some effects of the altitude, but they looked out for each other.
“One day, I had a really bad headache and a stomachache," Wells remembered. "My water intake was lower than my fluid output, so I knew I might be a little dehydrated. I drank two liters of water, rested a couple hours and felt better."
When they first arrived in India the students took in the local culture, visiting Buddhist temples, local craft industries and Tsmongo Lake on the India-China border. Following their high-altitude trek and data collection, the group visited a medical clinic in Yuksom.
“The students gained a new appreciation for what healthcare is all about in the third world," Wilson said, "and how fortunate we are to have what we have here."
Winona residents Dennis and Pat Nolan heard about the trip and registered as non-traditional students so they could participate.
“It was an adventure," said Pat Nolan, who had worked in the WSU Student Support Services Department until retiring a few years ago. "We took the class seriously and did everything the traditional students did. I learned a great deal about trekking at high altitude and Himalayan Buddhist culture."
Dennis Nolan, a physician at the Winona Clinic, said the trip gave him the opportunity to learn about physiological adaptation to high altitude and low oxygen conditions.
“This program taught me first-hand what it is like to function with low oxygen levels for prolonged periods. Many of my patients who have severe heart and lung conditions experience this all the time," Dr. Nolan said.
Before heading back to Dehli to prepare to return to the United States, the WSU group donated medical supplies for use in local clinics. On their last day they took a trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, the iconic white marble Islamic tomb built in the 17th Century.
Participating in a program like this can be life changing for some students, according to Wilson.
“Students learn that principles described in biology text books and classroom lectures really do work," Wilson said. "During and after the trek, students comment on how the trip improved their understanding and their ability to describe physiology to others. A year after the course they comment that participation changed the way they perceive their career paths and how they learn in the traditional classroom."
Rachel Harjes, a junior biology major from Big Lake, Minn., said the program changed her perspective on the world.
“Along with learning about high altitude physiology, we also learned greatly about India's culture and economic status," Harjes said. "I've recently looked into different organizations which help aid poor countries. When I graduate from WSU, I hope to join the Peace Corps and eventually get involved in international health issues and disease research."
Such programs also aid students in preparing for their careers after graduation.
“For students who will work in clinical circumstances they will get to see many disease pathologies," Wilson said. "What we observe as a healthy physiological change at high-altitude is often a pathological observation in people at sea level who are critically ill."
Wells said the collaboration with other students on research in the field was a key part of the program.
“I used to be quite shy," Wells said. "But I learned teamwork and the value of bouncing ideas off my peers. In my internship this summer at Hutchinson Hospital in Kansas, I was much more confident working with patients and interacting with other health care providers."
Applying their research, experience and observations to their careers is the next step for students who participate in this program.
“The next thing that students get to try and figure out is why no two people have the exact same physiological response to the same stimulus [high altitude and hypoxia], this is where the real learning begins," Wilson said. "When they work in a clinical situation, being able to figure out why different people respond differently is the skill that makes a nurse or physician outstanding."
Last Modified: Friday, October 06, 2006 9:11 by Heather Alt