Kealys reach the top of the world

Eleven months ago JP Kealy was at a low point, undergoing a stem cell transplant procedure for the multiple myeloma he was diagnosed with in 2014. Less than a year later he was on top of the world, literally, as he and his wife, Annamarie, ascended to Mount Everest Base Camp in the Himalayan Mountains.

The couple made the trek from the Nepalese town of Lukla, elevation 9,325 feet, to base camp at 18,300 feet as part of a team from the Multiple Myeloma Foundation’s Moving Mountains for Myeloma fund-raising campaign. Carrying daypacks, they set out on March 6 and completed 75 miles nine days later. The team of seven patients, three doctors and caregivers raised more than $400,000 — more than any other team — for the foundation, which will be put toward research for a cure for the cancer that is caused by malignant plasma cells.

On the trek up the mountain, the team was supported by sherpas and a yak train. They stayed at tea houses, which were little more than shelters with only a wood-burning stove in the main room — no heat in the bedrooms — and no indoor plumbing. Most nights the temperature indoors was 2 to 4 degrees. Meals consisted primarily of hot tea, pasta, rice, and potatoes, as well as hot soup with garlic, which is said to help in coping with the altitude.

“When you’re waking up in zero-degree weather and then you go outside, you never really warm up,” Annamarie said at her Old Farm Road home on Monday, little more than a week after their return from Kathmandu.

The biggest threat facing them was altitude sickness, and three members of their team had to be medivaced down because of it. Even a training trek in the Rocky Mountains last year could not prepare them. Each night the team’s blood oxygen levels were checked and doctors evaluated their condition. While a normal level is in the high 90s, one night JP’s fell to 68, but after a night’s sleep he was able to continue. Both were determined to make it to the top.

And make it to base camp they did, where the view was indescribable, they said. “It was 10 times better than what we anticipated,” Annamarie said. “To see these mountains that are 20,000 feet plus, to be above the clouds, above the trees.”

People who visit the camp leave mementos of all sorts, and the Kealys left a sign for their children. The team also brought a banner with the names of people close to them who have been affected by cancer as a means to honor them.

Their fellow teammates were an inspiration, Annamarie said. Each patient was living life, some taking chemotherapy drugs on the trek. “They pushed through it all,” she said. “We cried, we laughed, we connected, we made lifelong friends.”

“We are so happy we did this,” said Annamarie, who posted photos and comments about the expedition on a Facebook page for friends and family of multiple myeloma patients.

“You got a lot of comments on that,” JP said, referring to the notes of gratitude people left on her post.

“We did this for people going in for stem cell transplants. When people are having this it’s overwhelming. You don’t know what’s on the other side.”

“JP and the other patients showed that everyone has a mountain in life to climb. Their Mount Everest might be going to the mailbox to get mail or traveling to see their grandchild,” Annamarie said.

The couple’s next venture will be more modest, the MMRF Tri-State 5K Walk/Run in New Canaan in a few months.

“I will always be an advocate” for the foundation, Annamarie said. “The support we received was humbling. People rallied, and we’re forever grateful.”