When asked what they did over winter vacation, very few students can reply: “I went to Africa and climbed is highest peak.” 11 Cornellians chose to forego the comforts of home this January to climb Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro to benefit treatment of Obstetric Fistula.
The trip, dubbed, “The Fistula Free Climb,” took place from Jan. 10 to Jan. 22 and has raised $7,600 to date.
Trip leader Ilya Brotzky ’10 developed the idea after speaking with Cornell alumnus Seth Cochran ’00, who led a similar climb in 2007 to aid cleft palate surgery.
Brotzky learned of Cochran’s new cause, Operation OF, which focuses on Obstetric Fistula — a severe but treatable ailment for women in which a fistula, or hole, develops between the vagina and rectum or bladder after extended child labor without proper obstetrical care. Once a prevalent condition for young women globally, OF is now relegated to areas with poor obstetrical healthcare and those that continue to encourage early marriage, particularly parts of Africa and South Asia. Left untreated, OF can lead to incontinence, ulcerations, infections and kidney disease and failure.
“This affliction affects women in rural areas because they don’t have the education to know not to get pregnant when they’re 13 years old,” Brotzky said. “It’s difficult because they become outcasts from their village because people think they are cursed. They’re not even aware that there’s a condition or something to help them.”
The treatment for OF is a $250 surgical procedure. For Brotzky, the economy of this treatment meant the expedition could have a worthwhile and far-reaching impact.
“This is a big women’s issue, especially for younger women,” Brotzky said. “It’s a culturally embedded issue, with young women getting married off [early] ... These things are happening and it’s completely preventable.”
Sharon Dittman, Associate Director for Community Relations at Gannett Health Services, underscored the difficulty of bringing a sensitive condition like OF to the public eye.
“One of the really striking things about [OF] is that it’s virtually unknown to us,” Dittman said. “The discomfort of the topic probably means that it has been much more hidden than other health issues that are of significance in the third world. When you have a group of students that are ready to deal with the issue, it’s a great service to the community.”
In addition to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Fistula Free Climbers planned to volunteer at several hospitals in the town of Arusha, near the mountain’s base.
“We were originally supposed to work [at the hospitals] but it was more dangerous than we realized,” John Rhee ’12, one of the climbers and a pre-med student, said. “You have to be a second year medical school student to work with the patients because of the [high rate of] HIV infection.”
But even with a more casual level of interaction, the group members observed healthcare inequity on a regional level.
“One of the hospitals in the city was for middle class people, and the second was a free clinic,” Rhee said. “You can see the big difference between them. The middle class hospital is modern but in the free clinic ... it was dirty.”
“It’s difficult to go in there for a week and really make a difference and be qualified to make a difference,” Ilya Brotzky said. “A lot of times all we could do was observe and watch. It was really painful.”
The Fistula Free Climbers used local guides to make the week-long Machame ascent, the first days of which were spent slogging through the rainforest at the base of the mountain.
“I’ve summitted the Alps and Rockies, but this is very different because of the changes from the bottom to the top of the mountain in temperature,” Katrina Mehringer ’13 said. “I’ve never done this long of a multi-day hike before. I was one of lucky people on the hike that didn’t get sick, and seeing everyone push themselves emotionally and physically was amazing to see.”
For Brotzky, summitting the mountain’s Uhuru Peak represented a dramatic conclusion to a worthwhile challenge.
“You have to walk from 14,000 feet to 17,000 feet in the night with headlights on,” Brotzky said. “You see this line on the horizon of the sun, and then it emerges from the darkness and you’re standing there on top of the mountain looking out, and you can see the world. It’s chaotic and beautiful at the same time. At the end you’re so exhausted and glad you did it.”