Dr Jenny Langdon: Trekking for heart health

Berkshire GP Dr Jenny Langdon has undertaken 14 charity challenges for the British Heart Foundation, as a participant and trek doctor.

How many treks have you done to date and why?

I have done 14 treks for charity, raising £80,000 to £90,000 since my first one in 2005. I started after my husband left me and the last of my five children went to university. I wanted to get fit, meet people, travel and raise money for a worthy cause.

I run the heart clinic in my GP practice in Maidenhead, Berkshire, and I know how important it is to raise awareness of heart disease, the nation's biggest killer.

How did you move from participant to trek doctor?

I became involved in expedition medicine on my first trek, the Great Wall of China, when my roommate developed chest pain. She refused to see the official trek doctor and I ended up taking her to hospital in the middle of the night. Luckily, it was not an MI and she was able to rejoin the group.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) suggested I become a trek doctor and put me in touch with Classic Tours, an organisation that runs charity tours. I then took a residential course on expedition medicine.

My first trek as doctor was to Italy (Sorrento and Amalfi) and I fell down a cliff on the first day trying to reach a distressed, vertiginous participant. It wasn't the best start, but I managed to complete the trek.

I have been the official trek doctor on approximately half the trips. I almost always fundraise. My patients and colleagues are generous. I also spend 12-hour days standing in London underground stations with a collecting bucket, which gives me a great opportunity to meet the public.

The trek doctor is an unpaid role but flight, accommodation and meals are paid for and travel insurance covered. The doctor has to have their own indemnity insurance and I have had to pay for locum cover.

The treks are in remote regions and you have to work with what you have and use your clinical skills, which I find a great challenge. You are on call day and night and often get asked to treat local people as well as trek participants.

What was your most recent charity challenge?

Trekking in Burma with Classic Tours. It was an open challenge, with four of us supporting the BHF out of a group of 24. Unfortunately, one participant had to return home early because of a medical emergency involving a sudden loss of vision, which was complicated to diagnose in rural Burma.

I was a participant this time, but the trek doctor was a psychiatrist so she asked for my opinion.

Meeting the Burmese people was a highlight of the tour, they were always smiling, welcoming and gracious. We visited schools where the children sang to us in their spotless uniforms and watched harvesting of wheat by hand.

We came across a sick little boy as we walked, who had scabies and was covered in filthy, open sores. I treated him as best I could and was horrified to hear there is no accessible, affordable primary medical care in that part of the Shan mountains. It was a humbling experience and made me want to work there when I retire.

The lows were few but included catching campylobacter, a particularly horrible version of traveller's diarrhoea.

How do you prepare for trips and are they always treks?

I've done hill walking, trekking and scrambling plus a bike ride from Vietnam to Cambodia. Training involves three to four months of walking, cycling, swimming and cross-training in the gym.

I have also run four marathons for charity. I only went part-time recently and used to work 60-70 hours a week as a GP, so I tended to go to the gym on the way home from work and ran or walked on my half-day and at weekends. I did my first trek age 55 and first marathon age 57.

Which trip has been the most challenging for you?

Everest base camp in Nepal, where one trekker had an MI at the highest point. It is a long, hard trek at altitude, with medieval facilities.

Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and a trek in Iceland were close, in terms of difficulty.

Sometimes the people on the trek give you the biggest challenge, sometimes it is the terrain and weather. When bike-riding in Vietnam and Cambodia, it was the traffic and the total disregard for rules.

Where are you going next?

I retire in September and in October, I'm off to Uganda, trekking at altitude through 'impenetrable forest' and getting up-close-and-personal with a troop of gorillas. I'm thinking about dog sledding in the Arctic next February.

Ultimately, I hope to use my medical skills working in the developing world.

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