Creighton faculty and burn survivors take on Kilimanjaro
When Kevin Foster, MD, a Creighton faculty member, was approached with an opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, he jumped at the chance. Taking on “Kili” was appealing for this recreational hiker, but the thrill of the challenge wasn’t the main incentive.
Foster was more excited to join the other participants—burn survivors who had been admitted to the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health, where Foster is the director. The expedition was initiated as a way to show what survivors can accomplish. For Foster, it was personal.
“I’m close with all of the survivors who climbed. I helped care for them.”
He says he wanted to support them from a medical standpoint and also notes, “I'm really lucky because I have this great job where, while I see people who are at their absolute worst, I get to watch them get better and really triumph over adversity.” It’s a powerful source of inspiration, and he knew the climb would provide more of the same.
The Arizona Burn Center
In addition to showing all that survivors can accomplish, the Kilimanjaro climb also served as a fundraiser for an expanded burn center. The project was an initiative from the Valleywise Health Foundation, the nonprofit 501(c)3 partner supporting Valleywise Health, and K2 Adventure Travel.
The Arizona Burn Center is the premier regional burn center in the Southwest, treating thousands of patients each year. Valleywise Health is a member of the Creighton University Arizona Health Education Alliance, which means Creighton medical students and emergency medicine residents spend time in the burn center, gaining experience treating patients with a wide variety of injuries and needs.
The new burn center will offer state-of-the-art facilities, with an emphasis on patient- and family-focused care. Foster says the progressive center will provide inpatient as well as ongoing outpatient treatment. The comprehensive care module will account for psychological and emotional needs, too, along with providing essentials such as job retraining.
Plans for the climb, like many things, were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the expedition finally took place in June 2022. Over the course of seven days, 47 climbers—eight survivors and their supporters—along with guides and porters took on the mountain in Tanzania.
While it’s the highest peak in Africa, Mt. Kiliminjaro doesn’t require special equipment to climb. Most climbers can get to the summit with planning, endurance and determination, but it’s no easy feat. With chilly nights and full days of hiking, the climb took its toll. Some members of the group turned back before the final climb, but in the end, all eight of the burn survivors, along with Foster, made it to the top.
Of the final summit, Foster notes, “It was just such a great relief to get there. A lot of the survivors were still at the top when I got there, and I got to celebrate with them.”
And while the expedition was tough, Foster makes sure to note, “It's a piece of cake compared to what the burn survivors all went through.”
Survivors who made the climb included Christian and Stephanie Nielson, who were injured in a plane crash; Jason Nelson, who was burned over 80% of his body in a natural gas explosion; and Christin Lipinski, who had a rare bacterial infection. The eight survivors represented months of hospitalization, operations and immeasurable pain, but also triumph.
“It demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit. I know these people really well. I know what they’ve been through, and I knew that they would all work very hard to be successful at this, and they did. It was really rewarding, and it was a wonderful thing to watch and to be a part of.”
A documentary of the journey will premiere in spring 2023. The expedition raised over $350,000 for the new burn unit, set to open in late 2023.