KUMC students conduct medical research

July 7, 2021 – While Philmont’s many challenges give participants a deeper understanding of themselves, those same challenges also provide an opportunity to the scientific community to learn more about how those challenges affect the participants.

The University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota partnered this year to conduct an altitude sickness study at Philmont for the first time. KUMC student researchers- Hayley Ditmars and Courtney Sharp- are conducting the research here at Philmont. The study investigates the rate of altitude sickness in adolescents, an understudied group when it comes to altitude sickness, Sharp said.

The study takes place at two primary locations: base camp and the staff camp of Baldy Town. Ditmars and Sharp, who just completed their first year as medical students at KUMC, switch off operating the desk at each location.

Scouts first encounter the study when checking in at the Infirmary, at about 6,700 feet. One of the student researchers enroll scouts who meet the requirements: their trek’s itinerary takes them through Baldy Town and they are 19-years-old or younger. Ditmars or Sharp also collect background information on the participants to establish their risk factors for altitude sickness. The researchers note where the participants are coming from (to establish what altitude the participant is accustomed to), preexisting conditions (such as asthma), whether or not the participant has had altitude sickness before, and so on.

“It is definitely not a one-person job,” Ditmars said about enrolling scouts at base camp. She estimates that she and Sharp enroll about 60 scouts per day. 

The researchers call to get parental consent for scouts who are not over 18 or with their parents. The study is also completely anonymous. The researchers do not collect names or identifying information. Instead, they get a tag at base camp to place on their pack. That tag identifies them as part of the study when the participants arrive at Baldy Town. However, Ditmars said, probably around 30% of the study’s participants lose their tags before they reach Baldy Town, so they cannot participate in the study.

For those Scouts who do not lose their tags, when they reach Baldy Town, at about 9,800 feet, they will report to the study’s desk at the camp and will be given a form to fill out. This form contains a series of questions where scouts can rate the severity of any symptoms they may have at that time. They also note if they have summitted Baldy Mountain already or not. The possible answers provided on the form, which rank severity of symptoms, are each given a number rating. The sum of that rating, called the Lake Louise Score, indicates to the researchers the severity the scout might be suffering from altitude sickness.

A major incentive for scouts to participate in the study is once they have completed the form at Baldy Town, they receive a patch depicting the Tooth of Time and the University of Kansas’ mascot, the Jayhawk. A Jayhawk is a fictional red, blue and yellow bird with a large beak. After receiving their patch, scouts are sent on their way to continue their trek.

Ditmars and Sharp are, Ditmars said, “guinea pigs” because, while this may be the study’s first year, the Mayo Clinic wants to hopefully run this study multiple times over succeeding summers.

“I feel like the first three weeks setting up went so slow, and then, scouts got here, and then boom!” Ditmars said.

However, both feel the study, for which they receive school credit, is, “an amazing opportunity,” as Sharp said.

Ditmars said the study was her, “ticket out of Kansas.” She is excited because, as student researchers on the project, she said she and Sharp will likely be credited as co-authors on it.

That enthusiasm will carry the two researchers through the rest of the summer to complete their goal of between 1,500-2,000 study participants as they each split their time between overlooking the flanks of Baldy Mountain and the plains of northern New Mexico.

Written by Jarod Contreras – MPS Writer.