CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A nurse involved with the Trauma Survivors' Network at Carolinas Healthcare Systems drew strength from her patients in her fight to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
It is a daunting task.
“It was so much harder than I thought; the altitude messes with your head a lot, you struggle to breathe,” Julie Simmons says.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a total bucket list adventure for the trauma nurse at Carolinas Healthcare Systems.
“It sounded like it was gonna be a cool thing, and it was. However, I completely underestimated exactly how hard it was going to be.”
She drew strength from people that were thousands of miles away: her patients.
“I started out thinking it was gonna be just hiking on their behalf; it ended up being a lot more than that. I don’t think I would have gotten up there if it wasn’t for the constant encouragement and reminders looking down at my poles.”
Simmons leads the Trauma Survivors’ Network at Carolinas Healthcare System, a group of people that have survived horrible accidents, and many of them are amputees.
Stephen Shope lost both of his arms in a motorcycle accident.
Christopher James lost both legs in a car accident.
They each signed the poles Julie used on the six-day hike.
The nurse now has something in common with her patients.
“People going through a trauma can relate to what she’s done, what she’s done is something that to a lot of people think is impossible,” James said.
Each of Julie's patients say her journey mirrors their own.
“It was exactly where, I'm sure, Miss Julie was in, the sense of trying to get your mind to climb that mountain; that was definitely my mountain,” Steven Ferguson says referencing his legs.
A car hit him two years ago, crushing his legs. The former professional dancer says Julie helps inspire him every day.
Simmons gestures to a stack of cards sitting on the table in front of her.
“These are encouragement cards that were given to me by the trauma survivor network,” she explains.
They are basic, plain white index cards.
But the messages they carry are anything but.
“Sometimes they'd be simple like, ‘just keep going you can do it!’ ‘No pain no gain, man up!’”
She loves the one Shope, who has two prosthetic arms, wrote.
“My favorite part was: It could always be worse, you still got hands, ha, ha!”
That became her hiking group’s mantra.
“Somebody would say, ‘I got a rock in my shoe, I’m gonna get a blister,’ ‘I need to stop’ or ‘I’m feeling nauseous or dehydrated’ or ‘I’m just so tired today I don’t want to hike anymore’, and the whole group would say ‘quit you’re crying, you still have hands!’”
The hiking group often gathered at Julie’s tent to read the cards after a tough day.
“There were plenty of times I wanted to give up, especially on summit night, it was dark and 17 below and I couldn’t breathe very well, but I think harnessing that fear, which is something I think the trauma survivors have also inspired me with, and to use it for a goal, that is so worth it in the end… I just kept thinking of the things they do in their own personal journey which really got me to the top.”
It's a journey she says parallels her patients.
“Life changing does sound very cliché and trite, but it was life changing for me. I'm proud of myself for doing it. I summoned reserves I didn’t know I had.”
Just like her patients do every day.