Local mountain climber back home after medical emergency in rural Russia

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The President and CEO of The Buckeye Institute, a Columbus non-profit, is back home after a harrowing experience and medical emergency during a mountain climbing expedition in Russia.

While preparing for the final push for the summit of Mt. Elbrus, Robert Alt fell ill and began coughing up blood.

“For a mountaineer, you know what that means,” Alt said. “It’s a sign of what’s called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and they beat it into you because this is one of the widow-makers of the mountain. You get High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and you get down or you die.”

Rather than jeopardize the rest of the climbing team’s opportunity to get to the summit, Alt climbed down the mountain alone in search of medical attention. His situation went from bad to worse.

Alt was taken to a nearby hospital where he struggled to communicate and found the condition of the hospital and sanitation practices alarming even for Russia. “When they went to draw blood, the equipment they used I could tell they were reusing.” Alt said. “When they brought food there was hair in it, nothing was clean, flies festering.”

Alt realized his condition was getting worse, not better. “Every minute I stayed in that hospital, my life was increasingly in jeopardy.”

Using a “burner” phone he had borrowed from a colleague, Alt called his wife Rebekah, who started working to get him transferred to a better medical facility.

Alt had purchased a travel insurance policy with $1 million worth of emergency medical evacuation coverage to extract him from anywhere in the world and transport him to a hospital of his choice in the United States in preparation for this trip. However, when his wife notified the insurance company of the emergency, she was met with excuses and delays. “We basically entrusted Robert’s life to the insurance company,” Rebekah Alt said. “We trusted that during all of this they would come to his rescue if anything like this ever happened. That’s why we purchased the policy.”

Rebekah Alt arranged for a driver to pick up Robert from the hospital and take him to an airport for a two-hour commercial flight to Moscow.

Rebekah worked with their personal doctor in Ohio and the American embassy in Moscow to set up an appointment with a pulmonologist. The pulmonologist confirmed the diagnosis of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and said Alt would need continuous oxygen and a nurse escort on flights back to the United States.

Alt returned to Columbus on July 13. He says he is still suffering from symptoms of pneumonia but expects to make a full recovery.  Asked whether he will continue climbing, he said the pulmonologist cleared him to climb again but he added, “I think we’ll sort of take it a day at a time and see how it goes.”

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