PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - On Feb. 20, Dr. Joseph Maroon started his trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro as the medical director of the climb with the "Live Free – African Freedom Tour," led by triple amputee and friend, Rajesh Dubal.
Through and out of the rain forest of Tanzania, the journey began.
Their destination of Mt. Kilimanjaro was always in sight.
"And it really doesn't seem that far away until you start climbing up it," Dr. Maroon said.
Maroon, 73, is a UPMC world-renowned neurosurgeon, concussions expert, physician to the Steelers and a triathlon athlete, who was accompanied by his daughter, Bella.
This was a mission about rising above challenges and you only need to meet the adventurers to understand:
Hugene developed a blood clot in his leg and it was amputated above the knee.
Dillion, who is also from South Africa, lost both arms from birth.
Rajesh has two prosthetic legs.
"They were amputated when he was 1-year-old and as you can see, he has an arm that is malformed and withered," Dr. Maroon said.
Then, there's Kevin, who was in a serious car accident.
"[He] woke up with no leg and a fractured pelvis and multiple broken ribs." Dr. Maroon said. "He's called 'Irish' and you can see his one withered arm."
Nickolene is a South African fashion model.
"She speaks out about her own emotional disabilities she had some traumatic episodes," Dr. Maroon said. "The theme of this whole project was one's altitude is determined by one's attitude."
Everyone in the group is an elite athlete.
"We started at about 7,000 feet and we're going to climb to about 19,300 feet," Dr. Maroon said.
With every step, his climbing companions were an inspiration.
"Seeing them overcome the kinds of problems they had climbing over rocks, using their false legs, their prosthetics to go through loose gravel, big stones, big boulders and never complain, never complain. It was always determination, persistence, resilience, all of the factors that really determine success in any field and always good humor, always joking, laughing despite the pain," Dr. Maroon said.
Over five days, the group's camaraderie grew, culminating with an 11-hour climb to the peak on day six.
"You take one step and stop and another step and stop to get air, to breathe," Dr. Maroon said.
The big payoff was when the group reached the summit.
"It's a phenomenal view. You're on top of the world and above the clouds by several thousand feet and you're looking over at Kenya from Tanzania to the Serengeti Preserve and Mt. Kebo, which is a mountain surrounded in clouds and pure air, what there is of it, and incredibly clear sky. You see the moon and the sun at the same time. It's an awesome, awesome experience," Dr. Maroon said.
On that mountaintop, Dr. Maroon looked around at a true triumph of the human spirit.
"They have taken their disabilities to an entirely different level that I could never have imagined," Dr. Maroon said.
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