After 10 days, 55 miles of hiking, 19,341 feet of elevation and 2,200 photos, Aaron Waxman, MD, PhD, says climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa was an experience he will never forget.
Last month, Waxman, director of the Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program, combined his love for medicine and the outdoors by joining a group of hikers age 65 and older. Their goal? To conquer Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits – the seven highest mountains of the world’s seven continents – and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
An avid hiker and outdoorsman, Waxman participated as the group’s expedition doctor. For 11 days, he ensured the hikers were healthy enough to continue the journey each day.
“It was the climb of a lifetime,” Waxman said. “I felt I had the responsibility of making sure we all got to the top of the mountain safely. It was heartwarming to see the expression on every hiker’s face as they approached the peak. I was proud of everyone because they never gave up.”
Waxman and the group completed the hike through World Wide Trekking (WWT), an adventure travel company focused on safety, comfort and giving back to the communities hikers visit. Although the conventional path up Kilimanjaro is a seven-day hike, the WWT excursion is accomplished over 11 days, providing a more relaxed pace and more time to adapt to altitude changes.
Hike Farther, Hike Stronger
Last year, Waxman was invited to be the group’s expedition doctor by WWT founder Dean Cardinale and former NBC “Today” show medical correspondent Art Ulene, MD, who collaborated with WWT on developing the experience for older adults. In December, Waxman contacted the trip’s participants, who ranged in age from 65 to 81, to introduce himself and offer recommendations on how to medically and physically prepare for the trip. He sent an exercise regimen that he often gives his Brigham patients and shared guidance about required vaccinations and use of medications.
Reaching out to the participants before the trip was beneficial, Waxman said, because it gave him an opportunity to learn more about each of the hikers, their abilities and medical issues. While on the trip, the hikers found it reassuring to have a physician available at all times, Waxman said.
During the climb, some hikers experienced minor medical issues, such as headaches and orthopaedic concerns, but overall the group remained healthy, Waxman said.
“We made accommodations for our hikers and did everything we could to help them get through the difficult points of the hike,” Waxman said. “It was inspiring to see each hiker accomplish his or her goals and help each other along the way.”
While in Africa, Waxman also visited the Kilimanjaro Kids Community orphanage in Tanzania with his wife, Sue Goldie, MD, MPH, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and board chair of the Human Outreach Project, a nonprofit affiliated with WWT. The charitable organization arranges opportunities for climbers to give back to communities surrounding expedition sites in remote areas of Africa, Asia and South America.
At the orphanage, Waxman performed medical exams for each child and helped staff organize the children’s medical records.
Waxman said the trip and the people he met throughout the journey inspired him every step of the way.
“A hike like this changes you a little bit for the better,” he said. “This was one of the hardest and greatest things I’ve ever done.”