Despite being blind in one eye and joints giving her problems, Professor of Health Science Cindy Abbott takes on giants. Diagnosed with Wegenerâ€™s Granulomatosis, a rare, debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, Abbott is training to climb Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
“My immune system is attacking me. It’s attacking my blood vessels,” Abbott, 51, said. “For me it’s attacked my sinuses and my eyes and my throat … You just carry on.”
Abbott’s illness requires constant treatment and drug therapy. She also suffers from transient ischemic attacks which she described as “mini-strokes.” The blindness of her eye led to the definite diagnosis of Wegener’s.
“I’m lucky that I don’t have a more advanced case of it,” she said. “I’m on some support sites where there are people who can’t even walk up a flight of stairs or get out of bed.”
Wegener’s is an “orphan” disease, in that less than 200,000 people are afflicted. Drug companies don’t see a profit in creating medication for so few people, and with only so much research, Wegener’s patients are forgotten.
“Every person is their own case study,” Abbott said. “There’s not enough research, which is why I’m trying to get money for research.”
Abbott hopes that her Everest climb will bring awareness to organizations like the National Organization for Rare Diseases with her climb listed on the Vasculitis Foundation’s Web site as a fundraising eventÂ (http://www.vasculitisfoundation.org/node/2247).
“It’s almost like I was given this thing because I can actually do something like this and still have the disease,” she said.
Prior to her diagnosis, Abbott and her husband, Larry, were on safari in Africa and decided on a whim to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. “And we did,” Abbott said. Kilimanjaro was their first summit. “And then my husband created a monster, because I later saw a special on Everest and said, ‘I think I have to climb this mountain.’ And then I was diagnosed.”
Rather than sit back and wait for the inevitable, Abbott took charge and sped up her schedule. “I don’t know when I’m going to go blind, I don’t know when my joints are going to get so bad I can’t use them to do this any more,” she said. “I don’t know when anything can happen.”
Abbott leaves for Everest on April 1 and will be gone 68 days. The first 10 days will be spent trekking to base camp at 17,500 feet and climatizing. The next month will focus on Abbott and other climbers getting physiologically ready to take on the summit. For three days in mid-May when the jet stream shifts, the climbers will reach the summit and take two days to climb back down.
The trip costs approximately $80,000. “I’ve taken all of my financial resources and put them into this in hopes of showing people to raise funds for research.” Abbott said.
After Everest, Abbott said she’d like to take her husband Larry on a nice scuba-diving vacation as a reward. Larry Abbott, 64, teaches scuba certification classes at Cal State Fullerton, of which the Abbotts are both alums. Along with climbing mountains around the world, the couple also scuba dive and ballroom dance. Abbott has put dancing on hiatus until after the Everest climb due to a problem with her foot.
“It’s going to be really, really hard for him,” Abbott said of Larry and her upcoming Everest journey. “We’ve never been apart before … (We are) pretty strained financially.”
Abbott said Larry supports her completely. “He says that he’d rather me pursue my dreams than not live the quality of life I want.”
Of all of her experiences alpine climbing Abbott said, “It’s amazing standing there after weeks of working to get up there … suffering and struggling.”
She excitedly looks through pictures of climbs she said sheâ€™s “dragged” Larry on, remarking on a picture of them atop Mt. Elbrus in Russia, â€œItâ€™s like you can see all of Europe.â€
Abbott hopes that her journey will inspire others to overcome their own obstacles and embrace life. “Life’s for living. If I happen to have a rare disease, so what? I’m going to keep on living and that’s just my attitude.”
When Abbott’s doctor suggested she go on chemotherapy, she refused, despite his insistence that she was taking a big risk. “I said when there’s no life in life, I’m not interested.”
More information can be found on Abbott and her adventures on her Web site, ReachingBeyondTheClouds.com.