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UPMC neurosurgeon joins No Limits trek up Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro

| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 5:14 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Dr. Joseph Maroon, a UPMC neurosurgeon climbs the steps at the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland Friday, February 14, 2014. Maroon will serve as medical director for a group of 10 disabled people who will climb 19,000 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Click, click, click.

Dr. Joseph Maroon was exhausted. He had swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and run 16 miles. He was 10 miles from the finish line of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, and his energy was gone.

Click, click, click — louder now.

Depleted, “totally dead,” he recalls. The lava fields of Kona were pitch black around him. He stumbled a few more feet. There was nothing left. He had to quit.

Click, click. The faint sound coming from behind caught up to him. Maroon turned and saw a fellow runner fall into step with him. “You can't quit,” the stranger said. “Follow me.”

A car keeping pace behind the race came closer, its lights illuminating the runners. In their glow, Maroon looked down and saw the man's carbon-fiber legs. He saw his right arm, only partially developed.

“This is a triple amputee telling me, ‘Don't quit,' ” Maroon thought.

He continued on.

That was three years ago, and that man, Rajesh Durbal, has come to influence Maroon, 73, of Sewickley, in ways he never could have imagined. Durbal, an internationally renowned leadership expert, business coach, athlete and author, is the founder of the Live Free Foundation, dedicated to inspiring people to live their best lives. Live Free offers seminars and supports children's homes, medical missions and adaptive sports clinics around the world.

The organization's latest endeavor is the No Limits Freedom Tour, a trek across African cities of Tanzania, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Durbal has organized a team of 10 amputees who will climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,331 feet high, from Feb. 20 to 28. Maroon, a UPMC neurosurgeon, who also works with the Steelers, will serve as medical adviser for the team.

“The greatest moments of our lives are when our mind or body are stretched to the limit in pursuit of something difficult and worthwhile,” says Maroon, quoting author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “This is an extremely unique experience.”

The theme of the trek is “One's Altitude Is Determined by One's Attitude.” A camera team will film the climb for a documentary to be shown to community groups around Africa.

Maroon has participated in more than 70 triathlons and eight Ironman events, but has never climbed a mountain. To prepare, he's been running the steps at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning every other day. He admits he's a bit apprehensive, but not overly worried about the trip.

“A lot of people do this,” he says. “The primary problem starts once you're above 12,000 feet. You can get headaches, nauseated. That's why we're taking seven days to get acclimated to the altitude.”

The participating climbers are people Durbal recruited, mostly from Africa. Durbal, whose foundation is based in Orlando, was born missing bones in both legs, and his right arm only partially developed. He had both legs amputated as a baby. “He spent years struggling to fit in and be accepted by his peers,” his biography on the Live Free website reads. “He hid himself in his clothing so as not to reveal his missing limbs.”

In 2009, drawing strength from his religious beliefs, he ran his first race, the City of Orlando Corporate 5K. “He didn't even come close to finishing first, but he finished,” his bio reads. “That inspired him to challenge himself even further.” He went on to compete in Ironman triathlons, training around the clock. He became the first triple amputee to compete and finish the Hawaiian Ironman.

Durbal remained friends with Maroon after their first race together. He asked Maroon to join the climb team in October. Maroon couldn't say no.

“It's really about disabled people pushing themselves to limits other people would not perceive of and showing other people,” what they can do, he says.

Maroon will be accompanied by his daughter, Isabella, 18, on the trip. Together, they will conduct a study on the benefits of using nitric oxide to reduce the effects of high-altitude sickness.

Isabella, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says she's always had an interest in Africa and is inspired by her father.

“This is a great opportunity to do something I never dreamed I'd be doing in my life,” she says. To be part of this and be with these people, it will be an eye-opening experience.”

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