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Frozen in the Mountains

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Sugar Land resident battles blizzards and nearly loses his limbs during a trip to Nepal

Written by Rina C. John | Photos courtesy of Peter Fenelon

Sugar Land, TX News - Peter Fenelon and his college buddies were far away from the Texas heat when they got stuck in the mountains of Nepal during a blizzard in 2012. The snow slowed the hikers down and eventually forced them to stop at a remote rest area.

“The only heating we had was a small fire stove in the main room of a tea house,” Fenelon says. “The rooms were so cold that even a water bottle froze overnight.” The next day, the group continued their hike. “The snow completely covered the trails and continued to come down,” says Fenelon. “It was only going to get more difficult and dangerous as we continued up the mountain.”

What should have been an eight-hour hiking journey, ended up taking 15 hours. Fenelon says his feet went numb 45 minutes into the climb. When the group reached their destination, he removed his boots and noticed his socks were wet. “I took my socks off, and my feet were freezing. I had little pieces of ice on my toes,” he says.

Peter Fenelon (second from left) and his friends Chad Hutchinson, Jim Mazzo, and Thomas Owens fought blizzard conditions and frigid temperatures during their hike

Peter Fenelon (second from left) and his friends Chad Hutchinson, Jim Mazzo, and Thomas Owens fought blizzard conditions and frigid temperatures during their hike

He still wasn’t too worried because he didn’t feel any pain. “It wasn’t until the next morning when I woke up with swollen feet that I became nervous,” says Fenelon.

Frostbite Treatment
Both Fenelon and his friend Thomas Owens, also from Sugar Land, suffered from frostbite. They were transferred via helicopter to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, for treatment.

“Even though my feet had huge blisters on them, I felt certain that everything would be alright,” says Fenelon. “On the fourth day, the doctors drained my blisters and for the first time, I could actually see what my toes looked like,” says Fenelon. They were a dark, blue-grey color.

Fenelon asked the doctor what was happening. “He examined my feet and casually told me that I would probably have to get my big toe and part of my little toe amputated,” says Fenelon. “I was in complete shock because the doctors had been saying my feet were progressing.”

When his foot was elevated, Fenelon didn’t feel too much pain. But when he stood, it was a different story. “I could feel very intense pressure that felt as though my foot would burst,” says Fenelon. Fenelon eagerly waited for his flight to return to Sugar Land the next day.

It took the group 15 hours to climb up the snow-covered mountain

It took the group 15 hours to climb up the snow-covered mountain

Coming Home
It was a long and painful journey home for Fenelon, traveling for 30 hours from Nepal to Houston. Once home, he started hyperbaric oxygen treatment with Dr. Nicholas Desai at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital’s Advanced Wound Care Clinic. Fenelon was enclosed in a specially designed chamber to increase the amount of oxygen in his bloodstream, which was then delivered to his frostbitten flesh two times a day for up to two hours at a time. He did this for four weeks.

“The increased oxygen flow speeds up the growth of new blood vessels and collagen, both of which are necessary for healing,” says Dr. Desai. “The therapy can actually preserve tissue that otherwise would die.”

Fenelon was happy with the results. “I watched my toes progress slowly from a dark blue – very scary color – to pink and red, and even flesh colors,” says Fenelon. Despite the progress, Fenelon still had to amputate his big toe and a portion of his left little toe. Dr. Desai says it could have been much worse. “There are also tremendous psychological costs to losing a limb,” says Dr. Desai. He says the sooner a patient starts treatment, the better the chances of preserving the limb or tissue. The oxygen treatment can also help diabetics, traumatic injuries, and blood clots.

Patient Peter Fenelon and Dr. Nicholas Desai at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital

Patient Peter Fenelon and Dr. Nicholas Desai at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital

Fenelon says that he has progressed from walking with a cane, to not needing one, and now he can even wear a shoe. He is unable to be on his feet for long periods of time without feeling pain. “It’s only a matter of time until I am fully healed,” says Fenelon.

“It has been a difficult process, but I know that the whole situation could have turned out a lot worse than it did. I don’t know what my feet would have been like without the treatment,” he says. Fenelon hopes that soon he will be jogging and able to live the active lifestyle he had before the frostbite. SLM

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