… and then there’s Everest

This blog isn’t just about gardens and garden design. It’s about doing stuff I’ve never done before. So this post is about the trek to Everest Base Camp that my twin sister Mary and I are setting off for on March 23rd. We’re taking part in a massive research project with the Xtreme Everest 2 team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists. If you are interested you can find more information at our Just Giving page and on our blog http://twinseverest.wordpress.com/

And if you’re really interested this is an account of the first stage of the research project when we spent a day at The London Clinic in December.

So it begins…..

The research project into hypoxia that we are taking part in is to be conducted in two stages. The first stage consists of a day in London in December; the second stage will be in Nepal over the three-week trek to Base Camp in March. We are to have a number of experiments conducted on us – in London at The London Clinic near Regents Park, then at three laboratories in Nepal: Namche Bazaar (3500m), Everest Base Camp (5300m) and on descent in Kathmandu (1300m).

So in the gloomy darkness of a December morning, Mary and I catch the 7.23 train from Oxted to Victoria, clutching our bags tightly to our chests in the crowded commuter carriage. Because we really don’t want to lose these bags. These bags contain the gym kit we’ve been told to bring with us… but also two litre bottles full of… our pee!

Just pee into this bottle….

The instructions for our sea level day included a request for us to collect our urine for the 24 hours prior to our visit, so that the amount of nitrate we excrete can be measured! These instructions included the order that ‘You must not touch the urine!’  Really? And ‘Guys aim well! Girls, use those origami skills to make a ‘sheewee’ from your plastic bottles.

Origami skills… I have a suspicion that these ‘instructions’ were written by a man!

Sounds simple?

Well let me tell you that it wasn’t.

Peeing into a plastic jug – my Blue Peter skills let me down when it came to fashioning a sheewee from a plastic bottle – which I then used to fill an empty 2 litre water bottle, is easier said than done. Squatting over the loo with said jug strategically placed (the only way to describe a clumsy and awkward manoeuvre) certainly added interest to my day.

So on Tuesday morning here we both are, in a chilly London twinkling with Christmas lights, walking from Regents Park tube station to The London Clinic. Kay Mitchell (Deputy Director in charge of Finance and Administration for the trek) is waiting for us. She’s cheerful and down-to-earth in black trousers and sensible shoes. We’ve been speaking to her regularly in the build up to today so it’s nice to put a face to a name.

There are five of us being tested today, Mary and I are the only twins. Kay takes us into a small room just off reception where we fill in the first of many forms. Then the other three chaps are led off to start the testing while Kay talks to Mary and me about the muscle biopsy we have agreed to undertake (twins only doing this one) and gets us to sign a consent form.  I’m kind of wishing we hadn’t agreed to this – I’m kind of thinking it’s maybe going to hurt. But in for a penny in for a pound…

Down to business

Kay takes us to the basement of The London Clinic, to two adjoining rooms crammed full of equipment and machines and computers…. and lots of  young men wearing  black polo shirts with Extreme Everest 2 and The London Clinic logos.

And so we begin….

First of all our height and weight, then our blood is taken from us in test tubes. Which is pretty much what happens whenever we do the twin projects at St Thomas’s. But then it begins to get bizarre…. and goes on getting more bizarre as the day progresses.

We blow into tubes, we plunge our forearms into warm water, we hold short lengths of thick sponge in our mouths for three minutes, we have plugs shoved up our nostrils to breathe out through, we –

Well it all gets a bit blurred after a while. But when we’ve learnt how to take each other’s blood pressure, heart rate and put a clippy thing on the end of our finger that measures something I can’t remember, which we will have to do to each other every day on the trek… only then do we go up to the cafe for breakfast. And we are starving! No caffeine allowed, so peppermint tea and just enough time to gobble down a Danish pastry before we’re back down for more tests.

More blur. There was an amazing test where they put a probe thing in our mouths, with a camera on the end, and filmed our blood passing through the tiny capillaries in our tongues. It’s an extraordinary experience to see this network of blood vessels, a maze of dark lacework channels with grey dots pulsing steadily through – and know that your are seeing yourself. We also had to get hooked up to a machine and lie on a bed for half an hour without moving or speaking. And without falling asleep! Challenging! What kept me awake was the thought of nodding off, with my chin dissolving into my neck and my mouth lolling open, maybe a bit of snoring…. surrounded by handsome young men. Not what you want. Am I being incredibly shallow? Yes I am!

Bike test dummies

So just before lunch we are asked to get onto two exercise bikes side by side in the far corner of the room. A smiling guy in glasses hooked me up to various machines, heart rate monitors and ECG’s, with sticky bits of plastic stuck all over me, and a blue plastic face mask across my nose and mouth with another tube attached. I then had to cycle at a steady pace while they ramped up the intensity and asked me to indicate the degree of difficulty with breathing and leg tiredness by pointing at a chart (no speaking allowed) – until it became impossible to continue.

Bike Test
Bike Test

You’d think this would be enough, wouldn’t you? But all this took place with a camera thrust into my face. Because by now the BBC had arrived, and were filming us. Just what you want: face masks, wires, breathing through tubes so you sound like Darth Vadar, cycling to exhaustion – all on film!!!!!!

Mary and I were then interviewed by a friendly girl from the BBC. We were tucked in behind a screen in the corner of the room being asked about our motivation, what it’s like to be a twin (the old question twins get asked all the time!), how we feel about going to Everest. It all felt rather unreal.

Mary then had to redo her bike test, poor thing, because they hadn’t ‘ramped’ it up for the tough bit at the end. So I went to the cafe to have some lunch – nearly 3pm by this time and a very busy day. Then back downstairs – Mary just finishing her bike ride. She went for lunch and I got on with the next test, my right hand in a bucket of warm water for fifteen minutes! Then finger pricked and blood taken. All this being filmed, and I chat to the delightful BBC girl while the skin on my hand shrivels up like a soggy flannel.

The muscle man cometh

The last thing for me is the muscle biopsy! It’s about 5pm and a silver haired man in black tie gear has arrived. Turns out he’s the biopsy man. He’s a regular silver fox – all charm and arrogance and charisma. I lie on a bed behind a screen, BBC camera in attendance, while Professor Silver Fox lays out his tools on the bed. Bizarre to be stretched out, camera man behind my right ear, silver fox in an evening shirt pulling on plastic gloves and arranging his ‘knives’ on the bed next to mine.

He banters away easily, all that ‘you’re too young to remember’ stuff. The biopsy taking is uncomfortable but not painful. He’s injected local anaesthetic first so all I can feel is a bit of pulling and pushing. The gratifying thing is that he is most impressed with my ‘top quality muscle and good condition’. Asks me what exercise I do and I tell him about the regular yoga classes. He says he wishes everyone could hear me – that he sees so many patients whose biggest problem is their poor physical condition! Am I smug….?  Yes I am!

My leg is bandaged and I’m told to take it easy. Then it’s Mary’s turn, and I’m really glad I went first. It must have been unnerving for her, listening and waiting for me to finish knowing she was on next. I am feeling completely exhausted by now and I sit on the bed in the corner of the bigger room and chat to one of the nice tall brothers who is going on one of the April treks after ours.

So Mary is done and we’re both hanging in rags. It’s past six and we’re hobbling a bit, legs stiff and sore where the biopsy was taken. We plan a taxi to Victoria and say goodbye. It’s strange to think that the next time we see these guys will be on the trek. Rather nice to think of seeing familiar faces in such an unfamiliar setting.

No taxis. We take the tube. All a big blur. I get home and lie in a sorry heap in front of the television. It’s been a mad and wonderful day. I am sooooooo excited!

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