In June, we met the indefatigable Evelyn “Evvie” Heilbrunn of Great Falls. She’s a two-time breast cancer survivor, now battling Parkinson’s disease. She joined a project called “Summit 4 Stem Cell,” in which a group of Parkinson’s patients raise money for stem cell research by trekking to the base camp at Mount Everest, at 17,600 feet, and then up 600 more feet to a peak called Kala Pattar.
For someone with Parkinson’s, a progressive disorder of the nervous system for which there is no cure, just walking or standing upright can be a challenge. But Heilbrunn is part of a team of eight Parkinson’s patients who are on track to begin their Everest climb on Oct. 14. I spoke to her Tuesday for the latest, and learned that after a series of hikes in the Shenandoah Valley, she went to Arizona in July and reached a peak of more than 10,000 feet during hikes in the Coronado National Forest. Then over Labor Day weekend, with her fellow Everest climbers, she went on a four-day hike up the Kearsarge Pass in the Sierra Mountains of California, reaching a peak of 11,600 feet while hiking four to six hours a day.
Now she gets to rest. But not without a fundraiser in Great Falls last weekend which raised an additional $10,000 and featured a personal video message from actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a longtime friend of Heilbrunn’s family in Ohio. The overall goal is for the group to raise $5 million to fund highly promising stem cell research at the Scripps Clinic and Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., which has the potential to create cells that fight the damage caused by many neurodegenerative diseases. In a sad side note, Heilbrunn’s uncle recently died of complications from Parkinson’s.
Heilbrunn is scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu on Oct. 11, then fly to the starting point on Everest on Oct. 14 and begin hiking that day. Then it’s four to six hours a day of hikes, with a documentary film crew in tow, to reach base camp and then Kala Pattar. A previous Summit 4 Stem Cell team climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2011.
“I’m in great physical shape,” Heilbrunn said, having recovered from a broken wrist suffered during a fall this summer. “I know I can do it physically. Now it’s all in my mind. You have to focus and trust yourself and your ability.”
Heilbrunn has a blog here. The Summit 4 Stem Cell site is here, and you can donate to the cause here. A more detailed article about the science of induced pluripotent, or non-embryonic, stem cells by the San Diego Union-Tribune is here. My original piece about Heilbrunn is here. And below is a short video by filmmaker Jeff Seckendorf chronicling the group’s Labor Day training hike in the Sierras. We’ll check in with Heilbrunn again after she’s scaled Everest.