- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (January 20, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312280777
- ASIN: B000VYX4Y4
- Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 91 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,020,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor's Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance Hardcover – Bargain Price, January 20, 2004
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Medical case studies can be fascinating to read, full of drama, heroism, and sometimes tragedy. Most doctors' tales take place in clinics or hospitals, but those pedestrian settings are not for Kenneth Kamler, who practices medicine outside, patching people up with surprising success under harrowing conditions. Surviving the Extremes starts with open-air surgery in the steamy jungles of the Amazon River, moves to disturbingly detailed descriptions of the many ways humans can die at sea, and from there takes white-knuckled readers through the rest of Earth's extreme environments. Krakauer fans will gasp at the book's best chapter, covering the high-altitude medical feats Kamler has performed on Mt. Everest and other peaks. "No course in medical school taught me the proper mixture of oxygen, IV fluids, and Tibetan chants to treat a subdural hematoma in below-zero temperatures on a 3-mile-high glacier," Kamler writes. Instead, he has learned the fine art of adventure doctoring by doing it, and in the process, he's won fans among the world's most prominent risk-takers. Through it all, Kamler remains fascinated by the human body's ability to heal under horrifically dangerous conditions. His medical adventures are inspiring and thrilling, as well as occasionally bloody and disgusting. In short, perfect stories of human survival. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Ever since Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, books about human survival have captured readers' imagination. Add this book to the list. Kamler is no office-room doctor, preferring to use his skills on survival missions. As he puts it in his prologue, "I practice medicine where I don't belong." He takes the reader along on his explorations-be they on the Amazon or on Mt. Everest. While on the former, he used his medical techniques to save locals; on the latter, he saved climbers, including some of those threatened during the ill-fated 1996 climb chronicled by Krakauer. But Kamler's book is far more than just a story of his own explorations. He uses his journey as a launching point for investigating the nature of survival. In a style reminiscent of Oliver Sacks, he details remarkable stories of human endurance in adverse conditions-adrift at sea in a raft, lost in an unknown desert-while simultaneously educating the reader in the science of survival. For Kamler, the secret lies in the brain, which provides the key to survival: "If the will is there, the brain initiates actions that are appropriate responses to the environmental stress." Even readers who aren't survivalists themselves will find their brains stimulated by Kamlers fluid writing and lively stories.
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There are only six chapters, addressing survival in the jungle, on the high seas, in the desert, underwater (diving), high in the mountains, and in space. There’s also a prologue that sets up the book with examples from Dr. Kamler’s experiences at high elevation (specifically Mount Everest.) Each chapter is full of illuminating stories about the threats to human life that exist in all of the aforementioned environments. The author is a hand surgeon who made a secondary specialization through expeditions to extreme environments to deal with the maladies that are largely unknown to the average person’s day-to-day existence—from pulmonary edema to exotic Amazonian parasites. A few of the chapters feature mostly stories of Kamler’s own experiences. These include the chapters on the jungle, deep-sea diving, and high altitude climbing. For other chapters Dr. Kamler draws together fascinating cases of survival and perishment in extreme environments such as living in a life raft on the high seas.
Besides considering what might kill you in extreme places, this book also reflects upon a couple of other interesting tangential questions. First, what adaptations (cultural or physical/genetic) do the locals have who live at or near these extremes that allow them to live? A fascinating example of this seen in the explanation of how Sherpas of the Himalayas differ from the Andean Indians who live at high elevations in terms of their biological adaptations to elevation. These two peoples living under similar conditions share some common adaptations, but other adaptations are quite different. On a related subject, Kamler also looks at what adaptations other species have developed to allow them to be so much more successful in some extreme environments (e.g. seals in water.)
Second, the role that x-factors like belief and will to survive play are never shunted aside as irrelevant anomalies by the author. Kamler devotes an epilogue to the subject of will to survive. Dr. Kamler was at one of the camps above base camp on the day of the 1996 Everest tragedy in which 12 perished. Kamler saw and advised on the treatments of Beck Wethers and other severely frostbitten climbers. Wethers’s story is particularly fascinating as he lay freezing in the snow overnight in a blizzard, apparently snow blind—though it later turned out to be an altitude related problem with an eye surgery (radial keratotomy)—before climbing to his feet and shambling into the wind (his only guide to where the camp might be.) Kamler considers the science of how Wethers neurons might have fired to get him to his feet against what seems like impossible odds, but concedes there’s much we don’t understand about what separates survivors from those who succumb.
I found this book to be fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested questions of what a human is ultimately capable of. If you’re interested in medicine, biology, or survival, you’ll likely find this book engaging.
I have to admit, I read the chapters out of order (sacrilegious, I know, though I did go back and hit the ones I started with in their appropriately sequential location) and I’m glad I did, but that’s mostly due to personal comfort levels. I find the concept of pulmonary edema (high altitude) interesting; whereas a discussion of tunga flies (jungle) and cannibalism (open seas) might have had me balking too early to finish.
The book is occasionally hilarious, often disturbing, more than often disgusting, and there’s a few lines in the conclusion of the jungle chapter that read a little uncomfortably like a noble savage schtick, though generally speaking Dr. Kamler remains both interested and respectful.
He is both scientist and storyteller. Being the former myself, I would have preferred the book skewed more in that direction, but each chapter holds a healthy amount. More often, it reads as a series of short stories—true, in all cases—of stranded adventurers and their survivals or ends, accordingly. That he includes both makes each story a potential surprise, and he explains the ‘why’ in a generally respectful, informative way.
Overall, I found the book to feel both authentic and interesting. A book I would definitely pick up again...though I may skip the jungle chapter and its tunga flies...
The book itself has six chapters stressing survival stories in the jungle, on the high seas, in the desert, underwater, at high altitude, and in outer space. Each chapter includes an amazing story of survival (and sometimes the lack of) paired with an analysis of the biological responses that each individual experienced.
There is an apparent theme of the wonder of the human body and its survival capabilities. However, there is also an emphasis on the “x-factors” that play an important role in survival. Specifically, Kamler stresses the so-called “will to survive” and how it was solely responsible for the survival of Beck Weathers in the Everest Tragedy of 1996.
Simply put, this is a fun read. The stories are utterly gripping and the explanations are exceptionally interesting and educational. I personally loved the book because of Kamler’s narrative ability to combine his scientific knowledge with exhilarating stories that push the human body to its limits. The educational elements would that appear in this book make it an excellent choice for any anatomy-related course or for anyone interested in the limits of the human body.