Surviving the Extremes

Kamler, Kenneth. Surviving The Extremes: A doctor’s journey to the limits of human endurance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Reviewed by Amber Despain.

Dr. Kenneth Kamler first discovered his love of extreme medicine while on a climbing expedition in Peru. His party came across a bus accident that had left several people and animals injured and far from emergency care. Setting to work with the kit he had packed, Kamler was able to provide crucial treatment that saved lives. The ability to use his skills in such dire situations cast an immediate spell over him and led to more expeditions of the kind and the development of a reputation as a pioneer in ‘extreme medicine.’

surviving the extremes

Dr. Kamler has compiled a book of both his own experiences and those of others to illustrate the capacity of human beings to survive in environments hostile to their physiology. The book is divided into six parts to correspond with six different environments: jungle, high seas, desert, under water, high altitude, and outer space. Each section has the intriguing combination of accidents that occurred in each environment and the medical explanation of what goes on inside the human body to survive such incidents. If that isn’t enough to make for an enthralling book, add to it the fact that Kamler describes other aspects of these environments such as the food-gathering techniques of army ants, the method for making a shrunken head, the way a solar still converts seawater to fresh water, and how the bottom of a life raft that is carried along by the ocean waves can quickly become a mini ecosystem capable of providing a nutritious – if unappetizing – subsistence for the resident castaway.

This book left me feeling amazement at the capacity of the human body to maintain life in dire circumstances. I also came away feeling that I understood the biology better. Kamler explains complicated biological systems in a manner that is clear and easy for the reader to understand. This book is full of surprises and well worth the time of any reader.