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Doctor says Kilimanjaro trek was an inspirational high

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 6:01 p.m.
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At the summit of Mt. Kilamanjaro: Heugene Murray, who lost his left leg above the knee from ischemia due to a compartment syndrome in his lower leg; Zizipho Ndlwana, who lost his left leg in a car accident; Dr. Joseph Maroon, UPMC neurosurgeon; Rajesh Durbal, triple amputee; Kevin Waller, who lost his leg to a car accident; and Dylan Ronald DaSilva, who has no hands or forearms.
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Dr. Joseph Maroon and Rajesh Durbal pause on their trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
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Climbers trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro under medical supervision of Dr. Joseph Maroon of Sewickley.

A UPMC neurosurgeon feels on top of the world after successfully helping a group of amputees climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Dr. Joseph Maroon, 73, of Sewickley, served as medical adviser for the 10-member team participating on the Live Free Foundation's No Limits Freedom Tour.

“It was pretty phenomenal,” says Maroon, who completed the ascent of 19,331 feet from Feb. 20 to 28.

No one was hurt on the trip, though elevation presented some challenges after 13,000 feet, Maroon says. The last day of climbing took about 11 hours, with group members having to stop between every step to breathe.

“We went extremely slowly,” he says. “Any exertion made you feel like you were drowning. There was no air.”

The group slept in sleeping bags in tents on lava stones and had no access to running water. But the feeling of accomplishment the group shared once reaching the summit was worth the wait, Maroon says.

“You are several feet above the clouds,” he says. “I thought, ‘Thank God we made it.' It was incredibly exhilarating. The sky was perfectly clear.”

Maroon posted video clips from the climb on his website.

The participating climbers, all who have lost limbs to injury or illness, are athletes recruited from South Africa by Live Free founder Rajesh Durbal, an internationally renowned leadership expert, business coach, athlete and author. Durbal was born missing bones in both legs, and his right arm was only partially developed. Despite having both legs amputated as a baby, he went on to compete in Ironman triathlons and became the first triple amputee to compete and finish the Hawaiian Ironman.

The Live Free Foundation offers seminars and supports children's homes, medical missions and adaptive sports clinics around the world.

All the climbers had an indelibly positive attitude, Maroon says.

“They all rose above adversity,” he says. “There was no self-pity.”

Durbal says the journey to the summit took “sheer determination of mind, body and spirit.”

“The climb is all about survival,” he says. “Being in the mountain, you have to manage yourself very well at all times. If you don't, you can get into health-related trouble very fast.”

After the climb, Maroon returned home while the rest of the group continued on a tour of the cities of Tanzania, Johannesburg and Cape Town, where they met with community groups to share their inspiring story.

“I learned that the moment you set out to follow your dreams by pursuing something you never done before, you will experience lots of resistance,” says Durbal. “This comes as doubt, fear, uncertainty, enemies. But if you silence every voice and your emotions that are lying to you, you will press forward and accomplish your dreams and achieve what you thought was not even possible.”

This was the first mountain climb for Maroon, a seasoned tri-athlete who's participated in more than 70 triathlons and eight Ironman events. His daughter, Isabella, 18, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, accompanied him on the trip.

Maroon says the trip reinforced the idea that, with positive thinking, nearly anything is possible.

“It really is about one's attitude, and one chooses what that attitude will be,” he says. “These are some of the happiest people I've ever been associated with.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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