David Skalski was hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on the Rongai route, moving from east to west, advancing through the alpine desert of Kibo Hut at 15,931 feet, approaching Gilman’s Point at 18,885 feet. In the distance he could clearly see the ice cap of Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet. He couldn’t speak with the tube down his throat. His hiking sticks were two rolled up hand towels. He saw the red exit sign in the corner of his room in Lancaster General Hospital.
Skalski was delirious from the anesthesia and heavy sedatives.
“I was climbing the mountain in my brain,” says Skalski, 65, of Lancaster.
While Skalski, a former fighter jet pilot, was hooked up to a ventilator and hiking through the hazy altitudes of Mount Kilimanjaro in his mind, the doctors at LGH were performing a biopsy surgery on his lungs.
The doctors determined Skalski needed a left lung transplant. Suddenly summiting Mount Kilimanjaro was replaced with a new challenge: survival. But for Skalski, Uhuru Peak was always visible in the distance.
Skalski, known simply as “Ski” to his many friends, makes his living selling life insurance. One day in 2010, Skalski was updating a policy for an old customer. The man, 10 years Skalski’s senior, mentioned he’d just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Skalski, who hadn’t been interested in hiking up to that point, began asking questions, initially for insurance purposes, then out of genuine curiosity.
“It sounded so exciting,” Skalski says. “If it was something he could do, then I knew I could do it.”
That day, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro climbed to the top of Skalski’s bucket list.
It would be 10 years, and just as many surgeries, before he was able to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.
In the fall of 2016 through the early part of the winter of 2017, Skalski developed a cough he couldn’t seem to shake. He had gotten walking pneumonia nearly every year, so he wasn’t too worried. He was mostly focused on training for an attempt at Mount Kilimanjaro he’d planned for August.
In the spring, Skalski was refereeing field hockey games at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim. He’d been involved with the sport since his daughter Alaina played. During the season, he says, he typically refs five nights a week, running about 12 miles during each multiple-game session. After the games, Skalski returned home and did some yard work, but felt so exhausted that he took a rare nap.
A few days later, Skalski was in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit with 75 percent of his lungs destroyed. He needed 15 liters of oxygen just to breathe. He was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, an illness so rare only 1 in 250,000 people get it. He would need a left lung transplant. Climbing Kilimanjaro in 2017 was out of the question.
Skalski went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He had 36 tests in all to determine whether he would be eligible for a transplant. One day, near Father’s Day, his doctor entered his room. Skalski was alone, which was rare. The doctor shut the door behind her, also rare. She said he’d been deemed too high a risk and was rejected for the transplant surgery. In a lower voice, she told him Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia might do the surgery.
“I didn’t think I heard what I’d just heard,” Skalski says. “In 10 seconds, she just changed my life.”
Skalski says he was disappointed by the news, but he kept his sense of humor and he didn’t give up hope. He still dreamed of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I never thought I wouldn’t climb it,” Skalski says. “I always knew I would.”
Before long, Skalski’s wife, Tina, was hand-delivering about 2 inches worth of medical records to Temple University Hospital. The hospital’s Lung Transplantation Program is one of the most active in the nation, and patients who are turned down for transplants at other hospitals may be eligible at Temple.
It typically takes about one to six months to get a match, but after two false alarms, Skalski received a call at 3:30 in the morning of Aug. 1. The hospital was flying in a lung from Chicago.
A generous donor
John Tuzak was a happy-go-lucky kid, his parents Tom and Jean say. He was a gifted athlete, a lover of animals and a self-taught musician.
“He was clearly the smartest person in our family,” Jean Tuzak, who works in the special education department in a high school outside of Chicago, says. “And so generous. He was the kid they paired the special education kids with in school because he was accepting and helpful.”
Tuzak played baseball, soccer and football through high school until a bad case of mononucleosis during his junior year sidelined him. Inspired by the classic rock sounds of The Doors, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Black Keys, Tuzak took the opportunity to dive into music. In college, Tuzak and some friends started a band called The Addies and eventually played famous Chicago-based venues such as The House of Blues.
“He loved life,” Tom Tuzak says.
On July 30, 2017, Tuzak passed away unexpectedly at the age of 26.
Tuzak was an organ donor and was able to donate all his organs. His eyes have given two children sight. One of his lungs went to a woman who lives nearby in Illinois. The other one of his lungs is now in David Skalski.
“It’s good to know other people can have positive experiences because of our son,” Jean Tuzak says.
David Skalski and the Tuzaks have been in touch. They say they feel like family now.
“I would encourage recipients to reach out to the families,” Jean Tuzak says. “It’s been such a positive experience for us. It helps.”
The transplant was successful, but Skalski’s struggles were far from over. Though he was breathing better than he had in years, he suffered complications from the transplant, one of which required a painful stomach surgery. He also needed surgery to address a flutter in his heart. He developed skin cancer on his head and tore his rotator cuff.
Still, he continued training, determined to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
He’d long dreamed of reaching the peak of Kilimanjaro, to prove to himself and others that he could do it. He wanted to be seen as brave, to make his family proud, and he had other, what he calls “selfish” reasons. A phone call from the Tuzaks changed everything.
Jean Tuzak wondered if Skalski would be willing to take some of John’s ashes to the top of Mount Kilimajaro.
“It blew me away. I had to put the phone down. I couldn’t talk,” Skalski says. “I said I would be honored to carry your son’s ashes. In a millisecond, my whole purpose for climbing changed. All that other stuff went out the window.”
Skalski’s daughter Alaina, 27, roughly the same age as John Tuzak when he passed away, decided to accompany him on his adventure.
“It’s not something I had ever envisioned doing,” Alaina, a government employee, says. “It started out as my dad’s dream and I was along for the ride.”
In August, the whole family took a trip to Colorado to bond and hike. Skalski and Alaina used the trip as an opportunity for one last high-altitude training session.
Finally, after many delays, including travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the father-daughter duo departed from Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Oct. 6, and 24 hours later, after a connecting flight, landed in Arusha, Tanzania, the gateway to Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa.
Skalski had made it.
Reaching for the top
A few days later, Skalski, Alaina and a group of 10 porters, two cooks and two guides began the climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.
The hike begins in a tropical junglelike climate. As hikers ascend, the temperatures drop below freezing.
The first night, Skalski says, the stars were as bright as he had ever seen them. The desolate desert landscape was like being on another world, he says.
“It was almost like we were on the moon,” Skalski says.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a long-dormant volcano. It’s the tallest mountain in Africa, and one of the tallest in the world. The climb is considered a nontechnical climb, meaning you don’t need ropes or spikes or picks or pitons; it’s all hiking.
But there are dangers, including altitude mountain sickness, which can be fatal, especially for someone with limited oxygen.
Months before they’d left for the adventure, Skalski’s family had realistic discussions about the dangers of climbing Kilimanjaro.
“During a normal hiking season, people die on the mountain every day,” Skalski says. “But they are usually doing something their body is telling them not to do.”
Skalski accepted the risks, and his wife, Tina, was resigned to the fact he wasn’t going to give up. But she made him promise that he would get home safely.
The group hiked on. Aliana quickly bonded with Moses, a guide about the same age as her. And Skalski turned on his salesman charm and made fast friends with everyone, joking and demonstrating the cha-cha to the Tanzanians.
But over the course of the hike, Skalski noticed he wasn’t maintaining his oxygen levels. As Skalski rose in elevation his oxygen level dropped. His pulsometer readings had been steadily dropping from a stable level in the 90s, to the 80s, to the 70s, to the 60s. Every so often he took a break and huffed oxygen from his tank, but 100 feet later all that oxygen would be depleted. He was struggling.
If he couldn’t keep up his oxygen, he would never make the summit and he possibly wouldn’t even survive at higher elevations.
Sometimes the best you can get from a call to tech support is a short-term headache.
Keeping a promise
At 16,400 feet, just under 3,000 feet from the summit, Skalski knew he could go no farther.
He took out a small canister with John Tuzak’s ashes in it and spread them out. This was the highest Skalski had ever climbed.
“Ironically,” Jean Tuzak says, “John was very afraid of heights, so it’s almost like karma. The fact that he’s on one of the highest places in the world —he’s probably loving that.”
After, Alaina continued to attempt the summit, taking more of John Tuzak’s ashes with her.
“I never once thought about turning around. I knew I had to get to the top,” Alaina says. “For my dad and also for myself, and also the Tuzak family.”
After 9½ hours of climbing, Alaina reached the summit.
“That was pretty amazing to be able to stand on the roof of Africa by myself,” she says.
Alaina spread out the rest of John Tuzak’s ashes on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.
When Alaina was within sight of the base camp, she raised her hands like Rocky and embraced her dad.
“I said I did it for him, and he said he was proud of me,” Alaina says. “It was a pretty incredible moment.”
Two days later on a safari, Skalski and Alaina were still talking about their once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
“She said to me, ‘Dad I could not have done this without you.’ I said, ‘I couldn’t have gotten to 16,400 without you,’ ” Skalski says. “And we realized we both made the summit, whatever that summit was, by being together.”
Skalski still returns to Temple University Health for checkups. When he’s there, he tells other patients about the benefits of organ donation. He tells them not to be scared. And, perhaps most importantly, he tells them to “hike your own hike.”