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Students scale Mount Kilimanjaro to fund surgeries

Cornell students atop Kilimanjaro
Kristen Barnett '15
Thirteen Cornell students scaled Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness for women with obstetric fistula.

Scaling Libe Slope might seem like an epic trek, especially at this time of the year, but it’s nothing compared to the climb 13 Cornell students made over winter break: 19,341 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro, to raise $19,341 for women with obstetric fistula.

The money could help change the lives of about 100 women who suffer from the “biggest problem you’ve never heard of” – a condition that afflicts approximately 2 million women worldwide as a result of obstructed labor. Birthing trauma causes holes to form in the walls of a woman’s bladder and/or rectum, leading to long-term leaking and both physical and social suffering. It can be treated with a simple surgical repair that is 90 percent effective; unfortunately, most women who are afflicted do not have access to treatment or cannot afford it.

The students – part of a movement called Mountains for Moms, which originated at Cornell and is spreading to other campuses – flew out of New York Dec. 30 and spent 16 days in Tanzania. Six days were devoted to the climb up the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, with the help of a crew of seven guides, one chef, two waiters and 23 porters.

The most challenging aspect of the climb is the altitude, which can cause vomiting and cerebral edema. The students had to ascend slowly with one intense push at the end, when they hiked through the night to Gilman’s Point, the official summit but not the highest point. Eleven of the 13 students decided to attempt the additional 1.2 miles to Uhuru, trudging 2.5 hours along a snowy crater ridge to – nothing.

“Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we couldn’t see anything at the top, but nothing in the world will ever compare to the feeling we had when we finally made it to the summit, knowing that we have accomplished one of the biggest feats that any of us will ever attempt in our lives,” said Mountains for Moms President Kristen Barnett ’15, a student at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

“The mountain pushed us to dig deep and believe in ourselves more than ever before,” Barnett added. “In the end, we made it, and it felt so amazing to know it was for such a great cause.”

They followed in the footsteps, quite literally, of Seth Cochran ’00, M.Eng. ’01, who first climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2007 to raise $40,000 for cleft palate surgery. He then gave up a lucrative career in financial management to start his own nonprofit, Operation Fistula. By contracting with local doctors and setting up clinics in remote areas where fistula is prevalent, the organization has treated hundreds of women, for about $200 each.

The Mountains for Moms students have raised more than $15,000 so far, the largest single fundraising contribution Operation Fistula has ever received, and 36 operations have already been performed with that money.

They’ve also raised awareness, which is equally valuable to Barnett.

“The beauty of the trek is that it begs the question, ‘Why?’ People ask about it, and we’re able to tell them about the condition,” Barnett said.

The group has already started planning for another trip next year. They are also organizing an event March 27, which will feature the screening of a fistula documentary and a talk and performance by Charlotte O’Neal, director of the United African Alliance Community Center in Tanzania, where the students spent four days doing community outreach with children.

Stacey Shackford is staff writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

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John Carberry