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Hand surgeon pens new book on endurance

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When patients enter the New Hyde Park office of Dr. Kenneth Kamler, a hand surgeon affiliated with Long Island Jewish Medical Center, they are treated to framed photos of yaks burdened with heavy loads, mountaineers struggling up icy steeps and winds swirling off towering peaks.

Kamler’s patients might also notice a promotional poster advertising his new book, “Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance” (St. Martin’s Press).

Not only has the 56-year-old Bayside resident managed to balance his medical duties with trips to Mt. Everest and other far-flung locales, he has now written two books based on those adventures.

“I was very determined to be my own boss,” Kamler said Friday at his office. “Then it became a question of priorities.”

Kamler credited his partner, Dr. Robert Gluck, with keeping their private practice operating smoothly.

He traces his decision to pursue his passions rather than material wealth to a book about mountain climbing he noticed on his father’s bookshelf as a child. Intrigued by the funny name — ”Annapurna” by Maurice Herzog — he climbed up and pulled it down.

“That opened up for me a world I never knew existed,” said Kamler, who grew up in the Bronx. But the world of mountain men still seemed inaccessible, so as a boy Kamler bought a microscope instead and discovered the world of science and later anatomy.

“I thought the human body was the most mysterious thing you could explore,” Kamler said.

He went to medical school, but the urge for adventure remained in his psyche. While an intern at Long Island Jewish, Kamler was handed a slip of paper with the name of a climbing school in New Hampshire. After two years of occasionally pulling out the scrap and looking at it, Kamler headed north and was taught how to climb by an ex-Green Beret.

The two became easy friends, and the instructor called his student several months later to go climbing in Peru. On the way to base camp, the expedition saw a truck drive off a steep incline, and Kamler attended to the victims.

It was his first taste of wilderness medicine.

“I found taking care of these people was a higher summit than the mountains I climbed,” Kamler said.

Impressed by Kamler’s efforts, the president of Manhattan’s Explorers Club, who was hiking in the area, asked him to join the organization upon their return to New York.

At the club, a venerable gathering of renowned explorers, Kamler proposed that members compile a list of their medical experiences in the wild and found himself signing on for the job.

“I became a repository of this information,” Kamler said.

Members soon began inviting him to serve as the doctor on their expeditions. When he heard about a trip in 1992 to Mt. Everest sponsored by NASA to measure plate tectonics and the true height of the mountain, he called the agency and was asked to come.

Kamler and the rest of the research mission went back to the mountain in 1993, 1995 and 1996. It was during their last trip that eight climbers died, a tragedy detailed by Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air.”

“Every season people die on Everest — before you go to any of these big mountains you come to terms with that,” Kamler said. “But it was the first time friends of mine died.”

Kamler has since returned to Everest in 1998 and 1999 to help NASA publicize a telemedicine project and eventually wrote a book about his experiences there entitled “Doctor on Everest.”

Kamler said he keeps a detailed journal on all his trips, which helped when an Explorers Club member approached him about writing a second book.

In his new book, Kamler examines how human beings respond mentally and physically to extreme environments. It is based on his own experiences, such as tagging crocodiles in the Amazon and mountain climbing in Antarctica, as well as stories from friends and research.

The focus is “how people survive in these environments or do they survive,” Kamler said. “What is the will to survive?”

The book has made him a minor celebrity, with appearances on Oprah and CNN and profiles in The New York Times and National Geographic Adventure magazine.

Up next for Kamler is scuba diving in Alaska, bringing electronic books to classrooms in Bhutan and spelunking for archaeological artifacts at a secret location.

“If you don’t challenge yourself, what is life all about?” Kamler asked.

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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