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Irvine woman with rare disease conquers Mt. Everest

June 21, 2010 | 11:43 am

Cindy Abbott displays her National Organization for Rare Diseases banner at Camp 4 before leaving for the summit of Mt. Everest. Cindy Abbott lives with adversity. The Irvine resident  started losing vision in her left eye more than 15 years ago, and began having a slew of mini-strokes and vertigo. No one could explain to her why any of it was happening.

Finally, in 2007, Abbott was diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare and potentially deadly disease of uncertain cause. Affecting 1 in 20,000 adults, Wegener's Granulomatosis is characterized by the inflammation of blood vessels, a condition that restricts blood flow and can lead to lung, kidney and other organ damage.

Abbott, 51, has no idea how long she has left to live because of the incurable disease. But she did not let the debilitating affliction hold her back, and on May 23, she became the first person with Wegener's Granulomatosis to reach the top of Mt. Everest.

"I had decided to climb Mt. Everest prior to my diagnosis and becoming functionally blind in my left eye," Abbott said. "After the disease was stabilized, I continued my goal of climbing to the top of the world."

Abbott persevered with her dream, becoming one of fewer than 45 U.S. women to successfully summit the 29,035-foot peak.

"After years of training, spending six weeks on the mountain going up and down getting my body adjusted to the altitude, and the actual summit climb, I still find it difficult to believe I did it," Abbott said. "It was very difficult on many levels -- physical, mental and emotional."

And the weather made the attempt even more challenging. "I am talking about tent-destroying and cold," Abbott said. "The weather had all the climbers pinned in at different levels of the mountain." Adding to the difficulties was a cyclone that was moving toward the world's tallest peak, leaving a narrow two-day window for Abbott and other climbers to attempt the summit.

"We made it to Camp 4 [where, at 26,000 feet, humans cannot survive for long, even with oxygen] and left for the summit seven hours later. It took us 12 hours of climbing to get to the summit with no breaks except to get our oxygen bottles changed.

"I just kept climbing whatever was in front of me: a rock wall, an ice face, a razor-edged rim. It did not matter -- I was going to the top.

"Finally, at 9:02 a.m. on May 23, I found myself on the summit of Mt. Everest! It truly was like climbing to the top of the world."

Abbott quickly realized that she was "only part way through this climb. ... The most difficult part is going down," so she ignored that her fingers had gone completely numb and went about doing what she needed and wanted to accomplish -- taking her medication and then getting out her National Organization for Rare Disorders banner for some photos.

Cindy, center, with her daughter Teshia, and husband, Larry, at the airport after her return. On the descent, Abbott had some temporary vision problems with her one usable eye -- doctors think the cornea froze -- leaving her with about 30% of her normal vision on the trek down the mountain.

Abbott shared with Outposts the good news from her doctors on her return -- there are no changes in her health from the climb. Though she does still have some cold damage in her fingertips, Abbott said that the nerves should grow back in about 3 months.

"For days afterward I was so exhausted and happy to be safely off the mountain that I could not realize that it was actually over -- I did it!"

Abbott has been working with the National Organization for Rare Disorders to promote rare disease awareness and is also soliciting donations for the Vasculitis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that represents the specific category of rare disease that Wegener's Granulomatosis falls into (the foundation has even set up a page on Abbott's behalf for donations to go toward research).

"One of my goals was to show people to live life and go for their dreams. Life places hurdles in front of us. It is up to us as to how we choose to deal with them, and I chose to jump over mine," said Abbott, adding her favorite quote from an unknown author: "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."

Abbott has launched her own website on which she posts updates on her adversities and accomplishments -- Reaching Beyond the Clouds. An apt title, both literally and figuratively, for the adventurer.  

-- Kelly Burgess

Photos: (top) Cindy Abbott displays her National Organization for Rare Disorders banner at Camp 4 before leaving for the summit of Mt. Everest. Credit: Bill Allen

(bottom) Abbott, center, with her daughter Teshia, and husband, Larry, at the airport after her return. Credit: Stacie Parra

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