By Alison Ryan
“Whatever your excuse is, it’s time to stop believing it.”
These are the greeting words on Chris Bombardier’s blog, Adventures of a Hemophiliac. It is also the message he is sharing around the world, one summit at a time.
In 2011, when his job at a hemophiliac treatment center in Colorado invited him to go to Kenya to help set up a lab and clinic, Bombardier jumped at the opportunity. It was during this trip that his dream of tackling the Seven Summits began to materialize, and on June 3rd, 2011, Bombardier became the first hemophiliac from the United States to reach the Uhuru peak at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a 19,340ft accomplishment. It was also this trip which opened his eyes to the reality hemophiliacs in developing countries are faced with.
Occurring almost exclusively in males, the rare hemophilia gene mutation affects approximately 1 in every 5,000 births. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are only about 20,000 people diagnosed with hemophilia in the United States. It is difficult to approximate the number of people worldwide who suffer from hemophilia because it is an often misunderstood and misdiagnosed disease in developing countries. An estimated 75% of hemophiliacs worldwide receive inadequate treatment or are unable to access any treatment at all, and without treatment, many do not reach adulthood.
During infancy, Bombardier was diagnosed with severe Hemophilia B, also known as Christmas disease or factor IX (FIX) deficiency. Hemophilia B can be a life threatening blood disorder where the FIX clotting protein malfunctions or is missing all together. Bombardier’s diagnosis of severe hemophilia B means that his blood has less than 1% of the FIX his blood would need to form a clot. It also means he has an increased risk of bleeding into his muscle tissue if injured and longer bleeds may occur spontaneously into his joints and other tissue.
As a child growing up with hemophelia in the US, he recalled having to sit out during gym and baseball, but as he grew older, his adventurous side grew with him.
“I don’t want to sit on the couch,” Bombardier said. “I want to get out and enjoy as much as I can!”
Beginning the Accent in Africa
During his first trip to Kenya (he has been three times to date), he was astonished by the lack of care available to the boys and young men with hemophilia. He called it the most shocking thing he had ever seen.
“That’s where a lot of my passion for non-profit work I do comes from. It’s just to help in any way I can to improve the care [the young boys] receive, which right now is nothing,” Bombardier said.
When Bombardier’s team initially arrived to set up the clinic, they discovered a 14-year-old boy with undiagnosed hemophilia who had presented with abdominal pain and was rushed in for appendix surgery. Following the removal of his appendix, the boy had painfully bled for days with his caretakers at a loss for the cause. Luckily for the boy, they discovered him in time to treat the bleeding with the necessary infusions, and he pulled through.
It was that first trip to Kenya when Bombardier realized he wanted to take advantage of the proximity to Kilimanjaro and tackle the notoriously challenging climb, not only as a personal challenge, but to help raise much needed awareness about hemophilia.
“When I first went to Kilimanjaro I had no clue if my body could handle the elevation, or if it would be hard to infuse that high, or if I would get a bunch of bleeds on [the mountain],” Bombardier said. “It was a little scary heading up there with all of those unanswered questions, but I wanted to try it.”
The Seven Summit challenge Bombardier was about to embark on would take him to the highest peak on each of the seven continents. He was ready to climb as a platform to bring awareness about hemophilia, raise funds to help young hemophiliacs in the developing world, and inspire other people who shared his disease to live full lives.
Tackling the Challenge
“I can’t believe I’ve done five of the seven already. It blows my mind,” Bombardier said.
To date, Bombardier has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft ) in Africa, Aconcagua (22,838 ft) in the South America, Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft) in Europe, Denali (20,322 ft) in North America, and most recently in April, Carstensz Pyramid (16,024ft), the highest summit in the Papua Province in Indonesia.
While climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the first on his Seven Summits list, he had to push infusions of FIX three times a week, adding to the difficulty of the climb. On a new brand of the factor IX, he has been able to reduce the number of infusions to once a week, lightening the weight of the medicine he has to carry considerably. For the 16-day climb in Denali, the infusions only added three or four pounds.
Climbing with severe hemophilia B, even with infusions on hand, poses risks. What might be a minor injury for some could be devastating during a climb. Bombardier explained the importance of bringing people with him who are aware of his condition, having a hiking guide who can infuse him if necessary and being prepared as possible for each summit.
“Denali was the most terrifying climb so far. I had to worry about my medicine freezing solid and how I could keep it safe and warm, and the physicality of the climb was so much harder.”
There was a particularly close call in Indonesia when loose debris from climbers above him fell down the slope and a rock injured his ankle. Fortunately an extra infusion of the factor IX kept the climb going, but it was a sobering experience as Bombardier realized it would have taken days to get back off the mountain. After a short rest, they renewed their efforts to stay aware of safety risks as they completed their climb.
Determination and Inspiration
Even the most determined people have tough days, and Bombardier is no different. There is, however, a particular experience he likes to recall when the going gets rough.
The third time he returned to help in the Kenyan hemophilia clinic, Bombardier was heartbroken when he met a 10-year-old boy named Onesimus who hadn’t been able to walk for two months, crippled by his untreated hemophilia. As the boy and his mother struggled to understand the painful condition, Bombardier sat down to talk with them and to offer hope.
He recalled the instant bond he felt with the boy when he told him, “I have hemophilia too.”
“I’ve taken a picture of him on climbs so anytime I have a bad day on the mountain I can look at that picture and think, alright, I’ve got this. He is having a way tougher day than I am,” Bombardier said.
Eyeing the Horizon
Mt. Rainier is the next challenge and Mt. Everest is on the list for this time next year.
Looking forward, Bombardier said, “I really learned that with proper training I could make something that hard happen. Now instead of being terrified for Everest, I am excited to get up there and try!”
His effort to encourage and empower hemophiliacs across the world is part of his daily life and keeps him busy between training for climbs.
He raises funds to sponsor children living with hemophilia in developing countries through the non-profit Save One Life. Locally, Bombardier’s efforts to encourage and empower have taken form in the program Backpacks & Bleeders.
Run through the National Hemophilia Foundation Colorado Chapter, Backpacks & Bleeders challenges the community to get out and enjoy the outdoors in a safe environment.
Bombardier says that one of his favorite any-day hikes is South Boulder Peak, just west of Boulder, Colorado.
“That feeling of accomplishment and all your hard work paying off when you reach the summit is one of my favorite feelings with mountain climbing,” Bombardier said.