The diva of disaster
How many EPs attain the title of “disaster diva”? Christina Catlett did, in Mountain Hardware’s “Diva and Conquer” contest. She’s conquered nine mountains between 15,500 and 20,500 feet in the past four years. The disaster part? That would be her expertise in emergency preparedness and her disaster relief efforts on the ground for victims of hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Rita, among others.
Whether in the thin air of base camp on Mount Everest, or a tent in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, Dr. Catlett has found a way to combine adventure and emergency medicine into a career that suits her to a T.
None of this was planned. Joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins straight out of her residency, she knew she had to find a specific area of interest. She recalls, “I kind of struggled for a year or so to find my niche. In 1998 there was a course that came to the US called domestic preparedness and I was one of only two physicians in Maryland that took that course.”
After the course, Catlett checked Hopkins’s emergency preparedness plans, and realized they did not address biological, nuclear, or chemical warfare, or terrorism. Dr. Catlett started writing the missing disaster plans for the hospital, but the welcome for her work wasn’t enthusiastic. “I found out later that the administration used to call me the gnat, because I was buzzing in their ear and wouldn’t leave them alone about terrorism.” After 9-11 they started listening and, “I became their go-to girl for terrorism preparedness.” Within a year, Johns Hopkins created the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, and made Dr. Catlett its deputy director.
“That moment sort of became the defining moment for my career. I still practiced emergency medicine but I started cutting back on my shifts and was focusing almost entirely on emergency preparedness and response.”
There was a second turning point. In 2003 Catlett went down to Australia to speak at the World Congress on Disaster and Emergency Medicine. “I’m a sorority girl from the South,” she says. “I’d never backpacked in my life. I ended up going on this little backpacking trip and climbed a very small mountain, that could more appropriately be called a hill.” She enjoyed it immensely, and decided to do a big climb next. “I came back to the states and started training and two months later I climbed my first mountain, which was Kilimanjaro in Africa, and I got totally addicted to it.” From there, it was a short step to combining emergency medicine and outdoors adventure. She was climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2005 when her guide for the trip discovered the physician for his next trip—Everest—had dropped out. Her guide turned to her with the obvious question, “Gee, Christina, you’re an emergency physician and you climb, would you like to come to Everest and be our doctor?”
The answer was unequivocally “yes!” By this time she was the director of George Washington University Center for Emergency Preparedness, and the Center couldn’t let her go with two weeks notice. She set the trip up for 2006 instead. “It was beautiful because I got to combine my passion for mountaineering with emergency medicine. So now that’s another one of my specialties, expedition medicine.”
Now back at Johns Hopkins, Catlett continues to combine the two passions. “I became certified in advanced wilderness medicine last year, which is a great course. I’m trying to bring that passion for the outdoors to the residents and the medical students.” However, she warns that adventure medicine rarely pays the bills. “As much as I love expedition medicine, people need to know it’s a great field but it doesn’t pay any money. They don’t pay you because there are so many physicians willing to do it.” Catlett sees her expeditions more like all-expenses paid vacations, with some work attached.
Her most recent foray into adventure was on the Clipper Odyssey, a small expedition cruise ship that went from Japan, up the coast of Siberia, then to the artic circle and over to Alaska. And by press time of this article, she’ll have climbed the 20,600-foot Ampato, a mountain in Peru. Her next adventure goal is a trip to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker.
Dr. Catlett still works five emergency department shifts a month. “Theoretically, I could let my license lapse, but I like being out in the field too much. I still want to be active in my practice, because I also lead disaster missions, go into disaster zones, and you really need to be able to practice in the field.”
At not-quite 40 what does her future in adventure medicine look like? “I’ll continue to do mountaineering on my vacations; I would love to continue to do an expedition a year.” Long term plans for when she’s ready to slow down? “Being a doc at some sort of mountain resort would be great in 20 years. Or being in charge of a medical program for an expedition company.“ She adds, “I plan on being quite fabulous well into my 80’s.”