What do you get if you mix a Guinness world record attempt, telemedicine, and indigenous people? You get a super-athlete swimming 3,375 miles down the Amazon river while trauma surgeons at the University of Arizona monitor his health via high-tech gadgetry. Not to mention an opportunity to introduce telemedicine (aka tele-black magic) to several indigenous tribes and villages along the way.
If any injury, infection or illness befalls world record-setting marathon swimmer Martin Strel while he swims the entire length of the Amazon River in South America next month, a team of expert UA physicians will be there to handle the emergency, maybe even save his life.
Well, virtually “there.”
In fact, the UA doctors will be home in Tucson while Strel — a Slovenian super-athlete — tries to capture the Guinness World Record as the first and only human to conquer all 3,375 miles of the Amazon.
hough a continent away, the doctors will be following Strel’s every move, his every physical action and reaction, through the technology known as telemedicine — the UA’s electronic video system hooked up by satellite to cameras and monitors attached to the swimmer during his Amazon odyssey, which begins Feb.1.
Without a doubt, this is the wildest use of the UA’s state-of-the-art telemedicine system, widely recognized as the best in the nation. Launched here in 1996, the Arizona Telemedicine Program brings long-distance specialist, mental health and even trauma care to rural and urban hospitals across the state.
Linking it to a marathon swimmer negotiating a jungle river full of aquatic predators and strange parasites is a whole new video game. But the venture has a deeply serious ultimate goal.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to be part of an historic moment,” said Dr. Rifat Latifi, a UA trauma surgeon, associate director of the telemedicine program, and now medical director of the Amazon Virtual Medical Team for this swim.
“But my main goal in doing this is to get telemedicine publicized, so people can see what it can do, how it can bring health care to remote sites around the world.”
And to do just that, during the 70 days it likely will take Strel to swim from Atalaya, Peru, to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil, Latifi will fly south for several on-site consultations with the project. While there, he plans to introduce the telemedicine technology to indigenous tribes and villages along the river.
By the time Strel has swum the Amazon River, Latifi wants to have seen at least five villages along the river, in Peru and Brazil, setting up telemedicine connections to top experts at the UA and at major urban hospitals in South America.
“Going along on this record-breaking swim and being part of the human celebration will be great fun,” he said. “But there is much more to it than that.”
Aside from that larger mission, the immediate business of keeping Strel, 52, safe and healthy during this marathon will be no small job.
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