ARUSHA, Tanzania — Growing up at Temple Emunah Hebrew School in Lexington, Massachusetts, one of the staples of our curriculum was singing the song “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish.” It featured the chorus, “You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.”
So at the trailhead for a seven-day trek to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa at 5,895 meters (19,431 feet), I wasn’t surprised to see a few Israelis milling about. A quick game of Jewish “geography” revealed some mutual friends; a fun coincidence, but not so surprising. You can find adventurous Israelis anywhere.
But I was shocked when I turned around and saw a familiar face. “Marty? Marty Pollak?!?! What are you doing here?!” I exclaimed. Here, en route to the rooftop of Africa, I had run into a friend from the University of Maryland whom I hadn’t seen in at least eight years.
My college friend and the Israelis were part of an 18-strong contingent from Israel, America and Belgium, fundraising for the Israel-based organization Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). The group had raised more than $62,000 to help children from Africa travel to Israel for life-saving cardiac surgery. The organization also helps local doctors study cardiology in Israel to improve the level of care in their home countries.
Unlike me, the SACH group had fundraised and trained for six months in their quest to reach the summit. My group, on the other hand, were a bunch of lovely, random couples: a Dutch travel agent celebrating her 60th birthday on the summit with her husband, and an Australian couple on their honeymoon.
Kilimanjaro is not a technical peak. The challenge is mental: you must believe in yourself that you will get to the top.
“Polé, polé” is the Swahili phrase that means slowly, slowly. It’s one you’ll hear over and over from the guides and the inexhaustible porters who do everything you do, just with 20 kg (45 pounds) of supplies balanced precariously on their heads.
The human body can’t survive at altitudes so high, but if you train yourself by going slowly up the mountain, you can enable your body to adapt to the low levels of oxygen that make high altitudes so difficult.
Dr. Sagi Assa, a pediatric cardiologist at Tel Aviv’s Wolfson Medical Center who has been involved with SACH for years, joined the Kilimanjaro trek as the resident doctor. He told the group that the effects of altitude – lethargy, loss of appetite, difficulty doing simple tasks – are often the same things that children with heart disease feel. Their heart defects lead to a lack of oxygen in the blood, which also happens at altitude. It was a sobering and tangible reminder for the SACH climbers why they fundraised in the first place.
The summit push for Uhuru Peak, an 18-hour slog up and down that started at midnight, was one of the most physically demanding things that I have ever done. From two to six in the morning, as I scrambled up rocks so steep that I had to use my hands for balance, in the bitter cold where the oxygen was so thin I could barely breathe, I thought angrily to myself over and over again, “Why are you paying money to make yourself so miserable?”
I could not imagine why I had chosen to do this to myself, and vowed never to climb another mountain again. Randi Weiss, the Young Leadership Director for Save a Child’s Heart, who had organized the SACH group, echoed my sentiments. “Why are we even doing this?! There’s nothing up there but more wind,” she famously yelled at the group in the early hours of the morning.
Polé, polé, the guides kept telling us, when each step took enormous effort. Polé, polé.
But the feeling didn’t last. Just before the sun came up, the horizon and the sky melted into two disparate bodies of golden-infused rock and deep indigo sky. I looked behind me and caught my breath, momentarily paralyzed by the beauty surrounding me. We were so high, with such an uninterrupted view of the world, that the horizon bent into the distance below us — I could actually see the gentle curve of the earth. Clouds flowed up and over the mountain’s contours like warm chocolate, glowing pink from the sun. We reached the rim of the crater just as the sun peaked over the clouds, as if welcoming us to the top of the continent.
Immediately, my misery fled. I turned a corner and glaciers straight from the Chronicles of Narnia greeted me in the distance, weird honeycombs of towering ice, before the clouds enveloped the whole summit. Forty minutes later, I stood at Uhuru Peak, and unexpectedly burst into tears.
When you stand at the top of a continent, the world suddenly shrinks down in size. When you randomly meet friends on the rooftop of Africa, the world gets smaller still. But even I couldn’t imagine how small the world could really get until the day we left the mountain.
That afternoon, breathing normal levels of oxygen and lounging next to the pool with my new friends, there was an even bigger miracle unfolding next to us.
On the first night, the SACH participants made a presentation for their crew of guides and porters about Save a Child’s Heart and the reasons for their climb. One of the guides for the SACH group, Little Moses (there was also a Big Moses), mentioned that his niece was suffering from a heart problem. International doctors had seen her previously, he said, but he wasn’t sure what was happening next. Times of Israel Blogger Tuvia Book also met Little Moses the night before the trip while staying close to the trailhead for Shabbat and heard about Queenie’s plight.
Immediately the group made plans to examine the child as soon as they got off the mountain. Dr. Assa examined 18-month-old Queenie when the group returned to Arusha, still wearing his hiking boots. It turned out that a Save a Child’s Heart medical mission to Tanzania two months ago had already reached Queenie’s family, and she was on the list with a number of other children to eventually come to Israel. After Assa’s examination, her need for surgery was deemed severe and she was moved up on the list to come with the next available group, hopefully within weeks.
This was the fourth SACH team to climb Kilimanjaro. The group used the personal challenge to give purpose and direction to their fundraising. But in the process, through random interactions, they also literally saved a child’s heart.
“This was my first time in Africa for Save a Child’s Heart,” explained Weiss after settling back into normal life in Israel. “We get so close with the kids and their mothers or whoever comes here with them. They’re here for three months. But I only see them at the airport at either end of their experience or during treatment. I never have the opportunity to see the kids back home.”
Before starting their trip, the group had also visited a 14-year-old girl named Esther, who lives in an orphanage for Masai girls. Esther underwent heart surgery with SACH in 2010 and is now healthy.
“This whole thing with Queenie made me realize how genuine the impact is in local communities,” Weiss said.
The sentiment she takes away from the climb? Humbling. “The most fit can be weakest, the doctor who has it all under control has to take oxygen,” she said. “This climb humbles and levels everything out.”
Despite health challenges, food poisoning and mild altitude sickness, the entire group of 18 made it to the summit. Part of their fundraising will go directly towards Queenie’s medical care, which costs approximately $10,000 in transportation and medical needs for each child’s surgery.
Although I was climbing for myself, I learned many lessons on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that I will take with me as we enter the Jewish New Year: the patience to go slowly as I approach new challenges, the support of old friends when least expecting it and the possibility of miracles when the whole earth shrinks down to the size of a village.
Wherever you go, there’s probably someone Jewish. And that might even save someone’s life.