021: The Amazing Emily Farkas: Leading a purposeful life: Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Humanitarian, Mountaineer. Wow!
We continue our roll with another fantastic guest and her name is Dr. Emily Farkas. Emily is a very, very unique person from the standpoint of, number one, she’s a cardiothoracic surgeon. I think there’s 1% of the planet are female cardiothoracic surgeons. Those are the people that go in and rip open your chest, pull it open and dive down and fix your heart, fix your lungs and then put you back together. The thing that makes her very unique is her humanitarian efforts around the world, being in Mongolia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nepal, Nigeria, Kenya. The list goes on and on and on.
Essentially what she does is she works two weeks of the month in Wisconsin at a hospital. Then about six to eight times during the year, she goes on these humanitarian projects all over the world on her own nickel, going in, in a lot of cases, working on these little kids who can’t afford it, and then comes back out. The experiences that she’s had to overcome, just the challenges of being in the ER, the challenges of being in a man’s world as it relates to that particular profession, cardiothoracic surgery, and really thriving. She’s an inspiration to many, especially with girls. I’ve got two daughters myself, so I love it when people are out there, women are out there and they’re leading the way, they’re charging the way and they’re not letting any kind of barriers get in their path to greatness, and she’s another one of those.
This is a fantastic episode. As always, we love the ratings reviews on iTunes. This thing continues to grow. It’s so much fun having and getting comments from people that are sending me messages, so keep it coming. I love it. Here we go with Emily.
Dr. Emily Farkas is a Yale-trained Cardiothoracic surgeon and the first female accepted to the program at Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Farkas is board certified by the ABTS and regularly participates in humanitarian missions performing the most basic medical care to complex heart surgeries in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Peru, and Mongolia.
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The Amazing Emily Farkas: Leading a purposeful life: Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Humanitarian, Mountaineer. Wow!
We’ve got another incredible guest. Her name is Dr. Emily Farkas. She is a doctor, a humanitarian, a mountain climber, a speaker, an adventurer and a leopard owner. Emily, how are you doing?
I’m doing well, Mark. How are you?
I’m so excited that you’re here. Let’s get this out of the way. I’ve had the good fortune of actually seeing this little leopard. People are asking what is this leopard? It’s about two pounds, maybe.
I guess I can’t hide from the world that I am a cat woman now that you’ve broadcast it here on your podcast. It’s a Bengal cat and she’s about six pounds at the moment, six months old and she’s every bit the wildcat that her name implies.
The great thing about this cat is that it literally has the markings of a leopard, which makes it so unique. Anyway, the name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit and so much of this is about overcoming adversity. In your case, you’re such an accomplished person, such a rock star in my mind and the things that you do. What really separates you in the way I see the world is the way that you have really integrated into a world that most women don’t actually do, Not only from the profession that you have chosen, but some of the things that you have done in terms of your humanitarian efforts around the world. That’s super impressive.
Let’s just start back from your childhood, where you grew up. I want to lead to how you became a cardiothoracic surgeon. You grew up in Pittsburgh, what was that like?
I had a lovely childhood, in my opinion. I didn’t know much different from the area that I grew up in. I actually didn’t travel a lot, certainly not internationally as I was growing up. When I got to Pepperdine for my college education, it opened up the world a little bit to me.
Let’s back up just a little bit because you just jumped from zero to eighteen years old. I want to establish your drive because you’re a very humble person, which is one of the things I really love about you, and I’m going to ask some probably embarrassing questions to you. At the same time, I think it’s important to really understand purpose and how you got to be the type of person that you are in terms of your internal drive. In high school, where was it in growing up? Is it a job that you had? Was there somebody that influenced you in a way that I want to be that person? You’re on the East Coast, you’re growing up in Pittsburgh, you go through high school, and now presto, “I want to go to Pepperdine, move all the way across the country and go to this beautiful college in Malibu.” Were there influences along the way? How did that happen?
I grew up very creatively inclined. I did ballet, I took art classes at a museum, I won an international writing contest when I was in third grade. I had that type of mind. I surprised everyone when I switched gears, myself included. That’s the context for me growing up. It was all very creative endeavors. When I was in high school, it was just an extension of that. To be very honest, your answer about how I ended up at Pepperdine, I’d like to say it was the academic prowess. I was sitting in my guidance counselor’s office and looking at the book bindings and one of them said Malibu, California and I said, “That’s where I’m going to go.”
That’s an easy choice. Anybody who’s been to Malibu, California and seen the campus of Pepperdine, literally, it rolls up the hill and overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean. It’s just a great vibe down there; mountains in the background. That’s certainly an easy one. What did you study at Pep?
I was a sports medicine major, which was not what I had originally intended. I wanted to major in dance but my parents quickly set me straight on that decision that they weren’t going to pay the college tuition it took to just be a dance major. Sports medicine was the closest thing that I could find to that, which was interesting for me. Not only did it introduce me to medicine, but I think the biomechanics and the kinesiology and the exercise physiology probably shaped a little bit of who I’ve become and my desire to test limits. You learn about the body’s ability to adapt or to resist or to evolve or devolve or achieve what you need to do body and mind-wise, I think it’s part of sports medicine. It molded my desire to test limits and to see what I was capable of in both respects. That was one aspect of sports medicine. The exposure to the anatomy, physiology and the medical side of things was what got me interested in medicine to begin with.
Didn’t you go down and do a study abroad in Australia?
Yeah, that’s right. I spent a year in Australia. Pepperdine was trying to initiate a program with the Australian Institute of Sport in the university there in Canberra, Australia. I went as part of a group that tested whether the classes and the coursework would be equivalent to what it would be in the US and then stayed for the first group of Pepperdine students to come to the program. That really was my first international experience and it was very memorable for me.
Do you think that had any influence in terms of what you are today as it relates to the way your mind wants to travel abroad? Your first real exposure to going overseas, that sense of adventure, is that where that kicked in?
I think it was part of it. Certainly, when you’re living in another country as opposed to just visiting or spending a summer, etc. that you appreciate what’s different about this culture versus your own. Australia certainly isn’t some exotic location but it was different enough for me to start thinking about those things that were exciting to me as far as experiencing outside of my own comfort zone.
Now you come back and you graduate from Pep, what was the next step for you?
Remarkably, with it being on the beach and so forth, I made it to medical school from Pepperdine. I did apply to medical school and was accepted in Chicago. My next step was moving to the Midwest from Malibu, California. I always say it’s been all downhill since Malibu.
Chicago is not too bad, it’s just freezing. You get those cold temperatures. You’re talking about the Chicago School of Medicine?
Right, Chicago Med.
Now you’re there for four years. Are you doing a general practice at this point?
In medical school, there’s a core curriculum that every student has to take. You’re exposed to every clinical rotation: pediatrics, internal medicine, all of the specialties. You have to go through rotations in each of those, so you’re exposed to all of the types of medicine to try to make the decision about where you’ll focus in your internship and residency.
You’re in Chicago, and now you’ve narrowed the focus because you’ve gone through all these different rotations. Where does the whole cardiothoracic specialty come in? Where does that kick? Let’s go back to the beginning where there’s lots of female doctors out there. I think your particular choice in that profession is, you probably know the numbers, the percentages more than I do, but it’s a pretty small percentage. You’re living in a guy’s world as it relates to that niche, right?
Absolutely. 3% of cardiothoracic surgeons are female and at least a majority of them usually focus on lung surgery. To do heart and lung surgery is in the minority.
Now you’ve decided that’s where you want to go. Where do you apply and where do you end up getting accepted into?
For medical school, you have to first do an internship and residency in general surgery. You have to get all of the basics, so that’s five years. I knew that I wanted to be in a surgical specialty because I like to solve problems, I like to identify challenges and overcome them. I knew that a surgical specialty was for me. I had five years to make the decision about heart surgery. Within those five years, I just couldn’t find anything that was cooler than heart surgery to me. The technical ability, the level of acuity, the esprit de corps of the team you’re working with, a lot of specialists that have to be involved with something is involved as stopping and starting the heart. There’s just a unique attraction to that field for me. It was just amplified by the opportunity to affect people’s lives really profoundly each day.
From Chicago, where did you end up?
I did my five years of general surgery at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans.
Now you’re going from Malibu, crazy down the beach, Annette Funicello, the whole gang, to Chicago and it’s cold and it’s freezing there but you’re getting this great education. Then you bounce down to New Orleans, which I lived down there for a couple of years. I understand it’s a wonderful place for food and drink but if you’re not into all that stuff, it gets a little crazy down there. What was that like for you?
Surgical residency in general is quite intense. There have been some changes that have been made in recent years. In general, you’re working 100-hour weeks, so it’s pretty intensive five years of your life. There’s not really a lot of time for that music and food and debauchery on the outside. It’s a lot of focus and preparing yourself for either going into a field of general surgery or to subspecialize in something like heart surgery, which was the direction I was headed.
When I was down there, I lived with a buddy of mine, Brian Carey, who’s now an eye surgeon in Seattle. He was going to Tulane and going through these crazy rotations. It just blew my mind that he was actually in there doing these different rotations and surgeries and working 100-hour weeks and that these are the people that are operating on people like me. You’re so fried.
They’re supervised, of course.
I get that but it’s just you’re so fried, so it makes no sense to me.
Which is why a lot of modifications and some softening of the requirements have been made in recent years.
You do that and then what’s your next stop?
My next stop was applying to train in heart surgery. I was fortunate to be accepted at Yale. That was my next stop is New Haven, Connecticut.
I have been in New Haven. I was there with my daughter, Emilia, who was visiting schools last year for possible volleyball scholarship. As we drove in there, she said that place looks like Hogwarts, which is great. It did. It looks like it was from the 18th Century stone castle as you drive in. It must have just been so inspiring being on that campus.
I’ve got to tell you, you feel like you gain 20 IQ points when you walk around there. It’s just filled with people that have brilliance of unbelievable capacity. Not only that, it’s an exciting, compelling place to be because there are just so many amazing things going on around you. Again, I was working even more than 100 hours a week. It’s not like I was sitting in some lounge pontificating with scholars. I was busy in the hospital, working and operating.
As I stopped and I jumped around the corner and went into a Starbucks with Emilia, I felt like the straw man on the Wizard of Oz. It’s like, “Ask me questions and I can solve math problems suddenly.” It just all came into me. I understand you just feel like you’re part of the smart crowd. That’s really cool. Where was this all leading to? You’ve been in school for about twelve years, right?
Longer than that. If you count four years of college, four years of med school, that’s eight. Five years of residency, that’s thirteen, and now two years of fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery, so that’s fifteen.
Are you at the end of the rope?
Yes, finally I can become an adult.
Rack up a lot of debt and that’s just the way that goes. Did you start off as a full-time surgeon?
I did. When you finish your fellowship, then you’re called an attending surgeon. You’re the boss, the buck stops with you. My first position was at Saint Louis University as an Assistant Professor of Surgery.
I think we’ve talked about this before where you go in there, you are literally the quarterback. It’s probably a unique thing to a lot of different surgeons in that there are 20 people around you or 20 other professionals, they all have different roles and you really need to be the one leading and integrating and working with the team to make sure that this patient has a successful outcome.
[Tweet “Every person is a professional and an expert in their field.”]
There’s no doubt you’re the captain of that ship. However, every person is a professional and an expert in their field, whether it’s the perfusionist that’s called who runs the heart-lung machine or the anesthesiologist or even the people that are circulating in the room to provide the equipment that you need. Everyone’s critical to the outcome of that patient. That’s what I mean when I referred to the esprit de corps. You have this group of individuals who are in the trenches with you and everyone’s got to be on their game. It doesn’t matter if I do a perfect operation. If someone else isn’t contributing what they need to, it affects the outcome of the patient.
I want to jump over to your humanitarian and I want to come back to the stuff that you do in the doctor world. I want to understand better where this kicked in. Your humanitarian stuff that you do, where did that kick in? What that means is that Emily travels to these other remote, mostly third world, places around the globe. She goes in for a week or so and operates, volunteers to some of the most incredible environments in terms of non-modern medical equipment. It’s like MacGyver, you’re in there and I know you’ve had some crazy experiences, but where did that kick in?
Between my first and second years of medical school actually, I joined a group called Operation Crossroads Africa. It was a group of medical folks who went to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and basically provided basic medical care. I delivered my first baby in Kenya. That’s when my eyes were open that medicine, in all of its grandeur, doesn’t transcend the socioeconomic status of a country. How do you know that if you’re not exposed to it? I wish every medical student or trainee would be exposed to that kind of perspective because it really changes who you are.
Did you sign up to start going around the world at that time or you were exposed and then how did it get triggered?
That was just my first exposure. During my fourth year of medical school, I went to Sri Lanka and did some surgical cases there, things that were crazy like taking a spleen out because someone was lying underneath a palm tree where a coconut fell on their side. Things that obviously we’d never see in the United States. It put that idea in my mind that medicine is a skillset that I can take anywhere and that I can potentially make a difference with.
I had plenty of training ahead of me, so I wasn’t really at the point where I could contribute yet. As soon as I finished my fellowship at Yale, I just found a non-profit organization that was doing heart surgery overseas that I could join up with. I did it immediately and made it a part of my career at a very young age, which is not as common as many other physicians.
Let’s jump back into the doctor world. I know it’s all tied together. What is the name that is given to surgeons who parachute in for a couple of weeks and then they can go live wherever they want?
You mean in the United States they can live wherever they want, but they go to these locations to provide free heart surgery?
No, where you’re actually working. In your case, you have a hospital that you work with down in Appleton, Wisconsin but you live in Manhattan Beach, California rather than be a full-time round the clock.
It’s called locum tenens. It’s a type of physician employment that is not a permanent position like a normal practice that you’re accustomed to. You take assignments based on the need or based on your flexibility of when you want to work and where you want to work, etc.
This is the whole kick where your story becomes so fascinating to me, which is that’s exactly what you have done. That’s what you have committed for your life where you have done two things. Number one, you have signed up in a way that you can go and you can be in Appleton, Wisconsin and working and doing the medical care in that community at that hospital. Then the other two weeks is your choice to go do whatever you want to do. In your case, what you’ve chosen to do is go around the world and serve these other people on your own nickel, saving lives, which is just a miracle to me. It’s amazing.
I just want to read off some of these different places that she’s been: Mongolia, Vietnam, Russia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Nepal, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria. It’s a fascinating lifestyle and I know you’ve probably had crazy experiences. You shared with me not too long ago a video where it was funny to me, especially because from your perspective as a doctor, for you to open up a chest and to see the blood and guts and everything else, it’s just not a big deal to you. You go, “You’ve got to check out this video or these pictures,” where somebody had been stabbed and it was a huge sword and it had gone through this guy’s chest. It was just so fascinating to you because you were able to take it out and the guy didn’t die and it just missed all the right organs. It was just amazing like that. That’s not a United States thing, right?
That was in Amazon. There were two men that were in the jungle using one of those swords, so to speak, to cut down the brush and they got into an argument and one stabbed the other.
Which is the right way to settle an argument, I guess.
Although he wasn’t totally effective since we were able to remove the knife and it just skived the heart. A few centimeters in one of the other direction and it would have been the end.
I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg on some of these different things. You just got back from Nigeria and you’ve been down there a couple of times.
This is my fourth or fifth time.
One thing that’s really cool about Emily going to Nigeria is that they’ve actually named her as a travel chief. Her name down there is Okonkwo, which means gifted hands, which is beautiful. Tell me about the ceremony around what that has meant to them of you saving lives. As a woman, as a foreigner to be deemed a travel chief must be a huge deal for those people.
It’s certainly an honor for me. Back in 2013, no surgery had been done in Nigeria, no heart surgery in over ten years for different reasons. The University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital is where we went to try to initiate a program so that somewhere in all of Nigeria, of 250 million people, that there would be a place where heart surgery could be performed and provided.
We took a team there and I was blessed to be able to do the first operation in that setting. Because of that, they had this celebration with diplomats and government representatives, etc. In honor of a female doing the first surgery, they announced at this get-together that while men normally eat before men, that the women were going to eat first at this event, which I thought for certain was going to be an international incident because complete silence fell amongst the crowd. I stood up and women started following me and cheering. It’s not like it’s a Rosa Parks moment but it was quite moving for me.
It’s such an inspiration for anybody to be in your position, let alone being a female, let alone being in a probably very male-dominated society. You’ve overcome a lot of these things and then you’ve become a very big inspiration to those women within that village. Maybe one day, one of those women will become a surgeon.
I hope so. Certainly, many of the countries that I go to, I often will speak to groups of younger women or even high school kids to let them know what’s possible and at least, hopefully, to inspire.
Let’s shift over to another country. I know that you and I both have a love of mountain climbing. You’ve been to Nepal several times. Let’s talk about what happened a couple of years ago when they had that massive earthquake. You were in a position where you could leave and you wanted to go help. It wasn’t necessarily in your field in terms of heart surgery but they needed massive medical help, right?
Yeah. It started even sooner than that. My first trip to Nepal was with a group affiliated with the Himalayan Rescue Association and it was a certification in altitude and mountain medicine up to the place where the Everest ER is, which is just above base camp. That was an amazing experience. What struck me about that while I was in Nepal was they have so much exposure to affluence with the trekking and the mountaineering industries. That’s very different from most places I go to that are underdeveloped. They have this exposure to affluence and yet they have so little, and healthcare is one of those things.
It struck me at that time, which was many years ago, that I wanted to come back and do something in my field of heart surgery. Several years later, Kathmandu University had reached out to our organization and asked if we could help them start a program. That was my desire to come back to Nepal and do heart surgery. That was a great opportunity. The first mission, so to speak, we had set up happened to be five days after the earthquake, which ultimately claimed 9,000 lives. We had a whole team of people ready to come. We were going to do heart surgery but that wasn’t what the need was. The need was relieve these clinicians who were working day and night like a mass unit. Outside, it was just a war zone really without enemies. Half of the staff had either had their homes and/or family or friends just killed in this disaster. They just asked us, “Please come and please help.” We just came and did what we could to relieve them and to provide some support and assistance.
How does that happen? You land and it’s this complete chaos. We’re seeing this in Mexico City. Buildings have crumbled and there are cracks on the streets and infrastructures. How do they assign you where to go and who to treat? You’ve got all these skills because that’s what you learned going through medical school. How did they plug you in?
That’s a great question because there really isn’t anyone to plug you in. You have a group of colleagues who you have had contact with in preparation for this heart surgery mission but no one’s got time to stand around and worry about what you’re doing. You basically just have to assess what’s going on and then contribute where you can. That means it’s totally outside of what you’re normally doing in your hospitals back home. It literally could be anything from moving patients outside because we had the whole hospital outside because there were aftershocks that were just so dramatic that it shook the structure of the hospital that we were working at. We had the entire hospital outside. Something from doing that to suturing wounds, to stabilizing a fracture, there was just the whole spectrum. Whatever was needed to be done, you just had to do it. That’s really the adaptability you need for a situation like that.
Have you felt any kind of prejudice for being a woman, going back in your medical profession where you’re the quarterback when you walk in, and I’m sure there are a lot of male teammates that are below you, not as qualified or you’re overseas and a lot of these are very male-dominated countries?
You mean as I’m overseas, not while I’m in the US?
Starting my career in the US and being in a male-dominated field, I think I would say overwhelmingly, it was a non-factor for me, which I’m really grateful for. I’m not sure that every woman has that experience. It felt like I was surrounded by people who were so supportive and so willing to accept me for who I was that I was really, really fortunate. This won’t be popular among other females I think. I also think that women sometimes create a situation where it’s difficult for them to fit in, so to speak, in our field. They feel like they need to overreact or they need to raise their voice or they need to overcompensate, so to speak, so that they are recognized as an authoritative figure. I feel bad for those women because I feel like it’s not always necessary.
[Tweet “There’s a time to stand out, there’s a time to be a stiletto in a room full of flats.”]
In fact, I feel like I don’t really have to do that at all because I think that there’s a time to stand out, there’s a time to be a stiletto in a room full of flats, literally. Then there’s a time to just do your job and do it well and not give people a reason to reflect on why you’re different than the guy next to you. Navigating that and figuring out when is the right time to conduct yourself in the right way is a skill that I think every woman in a male-dominated field needs to master.
I think part of that too is about being secure with yourself. You’re very gifted and you’re very talented, I’m sure you can hold your own against many of these people. For that reason, you don’t have to necessarily carry a big stick and stand up and scream and yell and everything else like that because they already respect you for who you are. On the flipside of that, there are always those people out there that I’m sure that no matter what you do, what you say, how smart you are, how skilled you’re going to be, are still going to hold that prejudice against just because you’re a certain race or gender.
I’m certain it’s out there. I think I’ve just been fortunate, so it’s not like a number of different scenarios come to my mind. There are things as benign as walking into a room with an 85-year-old man who asks if you can get him a newspaper or a hot tea, honey, because they would never imagine that this female was the one who was going to open his chest and stop his heart. I’ll get them the tea and the newspaper and then I’ll start telling them about how I’m going to stop and start their heart. I don’t feel any need to malign them because they don’t recognize that I’m the surgeon. They’ll learn when it’s time and they respect each individual that’s taking care of them once they learn the role that everyone’s in.
It’s a sacrifice from the standpoint of you’re not in Manhattan Beach that often. To me, you really lead with that. That’s plugged in, reverse-engineered how you have this other part-time gig in Appleton, Wisconsin, population 100,000 and just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s a choice and life’s about the choices and you really are there to serve others.
Let’s talk about some of the things that serve yourself versus others, which is more your adventurous self. I know those are adventurous in terms of going to all these different countries. You certainly have taken on now three of the world’s top peaks on the continents. One is Elbrus in Russia which you got off last summer, and one is Kilimanjaro and the other one would be Mount Kosciuszko, which that could be a debatable one. I’ve been up it, I always call it the fun seven. What is your drive about mountain climbing? What do you like about it?
I just think it’s the most mentally and physically, at the same time, challenges that I’ve ever come across. It appealed to me initially because I just knew nothing about it. It was like this entire world that was totally foreign to me. As I started learning about it more, and I always enjoy challenges and seek them, it just seemed like something I wanted to accomplish, whether it be one mountain or seven or twenty. My first trip was in the Andes in Ecuador, Cotopaxi and Cayambe, which are both around a little over 20,000 feet, and that was jumping right in. I was fascinated with not just the altitude medicine side of it, just the adaptations that your body makes and the way you recognize them or don’t recognize them. That was all fascinating to me. Personally, it was just about finding your limits and pushing yourself to surpass them.
This last summer, you were in Russia, which is where Mount Elbrus is, I’ve done that mountain. What did you like about that mountain?
I liked that you didn’t have to camp out all of the time. As you know on many of these locations, you have to carry all of your gear to camp and so forth. They have some hut. I don’t know what the right terminology is. It’s certainly Russian, I don’t know. That breaks up the climb, so to speak, and you don’t have to carry so much gear, which of course makes it more difficult as you know when you get to the higher altitudes. It was a beautiful mountain. It’s something special to be on top of a continent, as you know and have experienced. I just feel like there’s no other feeling like it when you reach that summit.
It was a crazy twelve hours. We woke up in just an absolute beautiful sunrise. We were going up the mountain and as we got higher up, this is on summit day, we ran into a brutal storm and there was a whiteout. We could only see about ten feet in front of us and it was one step after the other and we finally got to the top. I think you hit it. I saw some pictures where you’ve got a nice clear, you’re overlooking the Caucasus Mountains and just intense in terms of the scenery. All you could see is art. That’s all it was.
It’s the real thing. That mountain is no joke. It’s not Denali and it’s not Everest, but it’s every bit of the altitude. The downside of having that hut that we talked about is that the summit day is it’s twelve, thirteen hours plus, depending on what your conditions are like. We did get lucky but we didn’t trim off any of the hours as far as the investment. It’s a real thing.
On the way down, we got in an electrical storm and we were literally in the source of the storm. Normally, you’re down on the ground and you look up and you see a lightning striking and you go, “Mom, there’s a lightning strike,” and it comes down to Earth. We were actually in that source, up around probably about 16,000 feet. There was somebody who actually got struck and died and it was awful. Everybody was running for their lives. Unfortunately, you’re so high up there, there’s no tree line and so you can’t hide. You’re exposed. It’s just like every man for himself and just get back to the hut ASAP so you can eliminate some of that danger.
T: What you find out is that we’re all the same, but governments get things screwed up and create conflict.
That was my experience. So much about what you’re talking about from the humanitarian side to the mountain climbing side being in Australia for yourself and Tanzania with Kilimanjaro and now in Russia, it’s not as much about the summit, although it is for me. What else would it be in Russia? Because I’m not doing heart surgery. To me, it’s been such fascinating. I’m sure you agree of getting to know the people, the other teammates on the climb and just the different cultures. What you find out is that we’re basically all the same, it’s just these governments get things screwed up and create conflict. To me, it’s inspiring to see the other side.
This last year, I was down in Tanzania. We were building water wells for the Maasai tribe, and you’ve been down there. When you travel in that environment and people have so little but they have so much, talk about the happiness factor. Their currency is a goat. It’s not about the car and the house and all the stuff. It’s amazing what they live in, dirt floors and bugs everywhere, and they’re just happy, happy, happy. It’s just put my whole life in a different perspective in terms of the way I approach it, the way I see things. To me, it’s been because of this journey that I’ve been on, and you’ve been on it longer than I’ve been on it. That’s why I know that your path has been so special in terms of what you’ve been able to do and you continue to be committed to these mountains, but really this humanitarian, which is an ongoing thing for you. How many trips do you do per year on this humanitarian side?
It’s every six or eight weeks. I think I’ve done six so far this year. It’ll end up being maybe seven or eight trips per year. They’re usually a week to two weeks in length. I allow myself one mountain a year as my fun.
What’s your next one?
Next will probably be Aconcagua. That would make the most sense. I’m more drawn to Vinson in Antarctica, but we’ll see time-wise.
Maybe I can talk you into Denali next May.
I forgot, that’s on your docket.
That is on my docket, I have to go back. This last year, you were the medic down in the Baja race. They’re going to have a crazy race and they need a medic and you happen to be available, and so you made that happen. What is that like to be in this? I know that you started in LA and you road-tripped all the way down there and you came back and you had all these crazy experiences and flat tires and people crashing and sleeping in this tent car thing you had going on. What was that like?
I’ve been an expedition medic in other circumstances but this was my first off-road rally. This was actually called the Bamako. It was an amateur off-road rally that began in Europe and Africa. In fact, that’s where I’ll be next January, the one that starts in Budapest and ends in Gambia. There are eight countries in between, I believe. This one was the first time they had done it in Baja. They started in LA and drove all the way down the peninsula and back up. It was a little over 4,000 kilometers.
If you can find a way to match up your personal and professional desires, then that’s all the better. Something like this that was adventure-driven, nothing I’d done like that before, and be able to have the skills to contribute to that event was really a nice combination for me. It was exciting. It was unexpected. We had to be ready for everything from scorpion bites to major car accidents out in the middle of nowhere where there’s no one there to help. I have a little bit of background in, like you said, MacGyvering things and making things work. We just didn’t quite know what to expect.
Do you take your leopard on these trips?
No, I think she’d be 1,000 miles gone if I had tried to bring her on something like that.
Emily, it’s been a pleasure, an inspiration to hear your story, to share it with everybody. You’re a beautiful person and you have a life commitment towards helping others. It’s very purpose-driven and that’s very admirable to anybody. I think it’s just fantastic. Kudos to you. It’s just an amazing thing that you’ve done, so congratulations.
Thank you. I appreciate it, Mark.
Thank you for being on the pod. Good luck in the future.
I appreciate it.
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