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U.S. Doctor Dies in Snowstorm in the Himalayas

November 4, 1996

SEATTLE (AP) _ Dr. Philip J. Fialkow moved with care in dangerous places, friends say, whether he was considering becoming dean of a troubled medical school or planning a trip to the Himalayas.

He exercised that caution during a mountain trek in Nepal when a freak snowstorm left him slightly frostbitten. Fialkow sent back most of his guides for a helicopter while he waited in camp with his wife, Helen, and three more men.

All these precautions could not save the Fialkows. The couple and their companions were killed in their tent under a crushing mound of snow as they slept. Rescuers were unsure exactly when they died, but they were last seen alive Oct. 21.

``The personal loss is very great for me,″ University of Washington President Richard McCormick said Sunday. ``During my initial year as president, I relied especially heavily on Phil as a guide, an adviser and simply a supremely wise and thoughtful human being.″

Fialkow, dean of the University of Washington medical school, was making his fourth trip to Nepal, an excursion friends said he had planned eagerly for a year. Fialkow’s deputy, Dr. John B. Coombs, said the couple, both 62, approached their hikes with the same care a physician would take going into surgery.

``Phil and Helen’s passion was travel and learning more about other cultures, and Nepal was a place of great attraction to him,″ Coombs said.

The Fialkows, who had two grown children, were making a simple trek through the well-traveled low mountain forests on their way to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

The couple set out with 12 Nepalese assistants _ four sherpas, one cook, two kitchen aides and five porters. Authorities in Nepal said the group was caught by an unusual October storm that dumped up to 9 feet of snow on the trails.

Fialkow was frostbitten after crossing a 20,100-foot mountain pass and asked his guides and porters to return to go back for a helicopter. Three Nepalese stayed with the couple in their camp, at an altitude of 15,500 feet.

It was unclear whether they were buried in an avalanche or the weight of the snowfall caused their tent to collapse. Maj. Kisendra Shahi, the helicopter pilot who retrieved the bodies, said they were in sleeping clothes, shoeless and lying in a row.

The bodies were dug out Sunday from under 8 feet of snow.

Fialkow was a distinguished researcher who did groundbreaking work on the genetics of cancer tumors and leukemia two years after he joined the university faculty in 1965.

``He did all this by using very, very simple techniques,″ said Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulis, a fellow geneticist who worked with Fialkow for three decades. ``Still his work is being cited in textbooks and monographs today.″

He was asked by McCormick’s predecessor, William P. Gerberding, to take over the medical school after the firing of one dean and the resignation of his successor, who had been accused of taking sexual advantage of a university employee.

Fialkow initially turned down the offer. ``We had to twist his arm,″ Gerberding said at the time.

Two years later, in 1992, Fialkow was made vice president for medical affairs. During his tenure, six endowed chairs were established at the medical school and work began on the first major expansion of research space in 20 years.

Fialkow, a native of New York, was a private person, but his love of the mountains was well known, said Dr. Carlos A. Pellegrini, chairman of surgery.

``I knew that he had a very special affair, if you wish, with the mountains and nature. Now, why Nepal? I don’t know,″ Pellegrini said.

The deaths added to a disastrous year for Himalayan climbers. Twenty-two have died in the mountains, including 11 killed last spring on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

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