June 1, 2010 -- She's scuba dived in Iceland and Indonesia, gone on safari in Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. So when Cindy Abbott saw a television special on Mount Everest, she knew that would be her next adventure.
Abbott, 51, contacted a high-altitude guide about how to train for the climb. But five months later, she suddenly lost the vision in her left eye.
Losing her eyesight was another symptom that doctors could not explain in her 15 years of living with Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare disease that affects one in 30,000 people, according to the Vasculitis Foundation.
"The blindness was a good thing in a way because I got diagnosed," said Abbott, who lives in Orange County, Calif. "It led my doctors, who had been seeing me for years and not knowing what was wrong with me."
Abbott has had joint problems and mini strokes, and her voice has changed as the disease alters her throat tissue. There is no cure for Wegener's granulomatosis, and Abbott controls the symptoms with a 16-pill-a-day medication regimen.
"Simply speaking, my immune system is attacking my blood vessels and destroying them," said Abbott.
But her diagnosis did not mean the end to her dream of climbing Everest. Instead, Abbott continued her training climbs. She scaled Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Elbrus in Russia and Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, deciding to make her Everest climb an awareness and fundraising campaign for Wegener's granulomatosis and other rare diseases.
"We have no drugs that are specific for our diseases," said Abbott. "There's no money in the drug companies to research to make a drug for them. And there's not enough of us to make the doctors aware of the diseases."
But why attempt a feat that most healthy people would not think of doing?
"It's me showing myself it isn't what controls me," said Abbott. "I'm responsible about my treatment. But if I want to climb a mountain or go scuba diving in Iceland, it's not going to dictate whether I do or not, at this point."
Determined to Reach the Top
Shortly before leaving for her trip to Nepal, Abbott looked over the climbing gear laid out on tables and chairs in her dining area: piles of jackets, multiple layers of gloves and mittens, and a pick ax personalized with her name. She and her husband have exhausted their travel fund for two years of training climbs and have taken out loans and pulled large amount from retirement accounts to pay for this climb. The Everest trip cost them $80,000 for travel and equipment.
"My favorite is my summit boots," said Abbott, holding up a pair of big yellow boots, which alone cost $1,000. "Then to go in the boots, we have battery-operated boot heaters for our toes. I'd like to have all my fingers and toes when we go back."
Abbott said this expedition is not just about the physical challenges. She will draw on her expertise in sports psychology as a health science lecturer at Cal State Fullerton.
"I think I actually have a benefit over most climbers," said Abbott. "When you get up on that mountain it's only about half physical, and the rest mental, because of the suffering, the extreme days, the extreme environment and being away from your family."
Abbott said the most difficult of all will be missing her family, especially Larry, her husband of 25 years. Both he and her daughter support her trekking with a health condition.
"It's just another challenge," said Larry Abbott, as he waited with his wife at the Los Angeles airport before her flight. "It's the cards that you're dealt. We're all faced with challenges of our own type, some of them small, some of them big, every single day."
Reaching Her Goal
"It was just the most amazing feeling," said Abbot in a satellite phone call after reaching the peak. "You look out and know that you're on top of the world."
Making her way down was even more treacherous than reaching the top. Vision problems meant she temporarily lost sight in her right eye and climbed down the ice wall practically blind. The vision loss was temporary, and aside from that, she suffered only some minor injuries and frostbite.
Abbott returned to Southern California about a week after reaching the summit of Mount Everest. But she won't be home for long. Next up: taking her husband on a scuba diving trip.