Bloor West Villager
Four days into a seven-day climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, Bloor West Village resident Dr. Bjug Borgundvaag encountered an unexpected patient.
Guides were calling for a physician as Borgundvaag, who works in the Emergency Department at Mount Sinai Hospital, climbed a steep hill to the nearest campsite along with the rest of his fundraising expedition.
They brought him to a ranger hut where he discovered a shivering little boy wearing little more than sandals on his feet.
“It was really good fortune we found him when we did,” recalled Borgundvaag, just three days after returning to work at the hospital. “He was cold and suffering from some elements of hypothermia.”
He didn’t seem to be affected by altitude sickness despite being lost on the mountain for three days and two nights. In spite of a language barrier, Borgundvaag and his cohorts learned the six-year-old boy had been sent to cut grass to feed livestock. His father may have been a porter, said Borgundvaag.
“Here we were schlepping around in our fancy gear and boots and this kid is wearing flip flops and almost no clothes,” said the Windermere Avenue resident. “The temperature had to have been at least 10 (degrees Celsius) below (zero). We’d had ice on our sleeping bags and tents. He wouldn’t have survived another night.”
Suffering from exposure, Borgundvaag and his colleague, Dr. Howard Ovens, gave the boy electrolyte solution and sport gel – the same kind of food runners consume while completing a marathon, he explained – and chocolate, “whatever we had.”
“He seemed really thirsty. We wrapped him up in sleeping bags and gave him hot tea. We warmed him up over several hours,” Borgundvaag told The Villager. “One of the porters carried him down the mountain. It was terrific good luck that we found him.”
The little boy served as inspiration for the group. He had travelled 40 kilometres and 10,000 feet on his own. “All of us felt that if this little guy could get up there, we could continue,” Borgundvaag said.
The expedition was led by Mount Sinai benefactor David Cynamon, whom Borgundvaag calls “a truly remarkable individual and incredible leader.”
‘Summit for Sinai’ was in part his idea, an initiative that raised more than $1 million for the hospital. Each of the 13 climbers had to pledge to raise $100,000 and could decide where the money was directed. One, for example, lost a brother to cancer and decided he wanted to contribute funds to cancer research at Mount Sinai.
The summit of Kili, as it is known, is 5,895 metres (19,340 feet). Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes in the world with three main volcanic peaks. Although the mountain is at three degrees south of the equator, an ice cap covers the crater of Kibo year-round.
There are inherent risks in any mountaineering trip; reaching the top of Kilimanjaro involves negotiating technically difficult terrain and the need to watch each other closely for the effects of oxygen deprivation with the high altitude, Borgundvaag said.
“It was decided that two doctors would accompany the team,” he said. “Even though they were all fit and in good shape, more than half the people who climb Kilimanjaro don’t get to the summit. Chances are overly high that at least one person would be sick with altitude issues.”
Who better to accompany the group than an ER physician, he thought.
“I didn’t know if I’d get to the summit. It’s quite an accomplishment to get up there,” Borgundvaag said.
Indeed, he succeeded to reach the top of the mountain and said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“I would go back in a second. It was a marvellous experience,” said the father of three teenage daughters. “It was a rare opportunity for a 50-year-old guy, an exceptional adventure.”