Sitting in 22c, flying at 35,000ft, I wrestled with my bag desperately trying to find both my Advil and Imodium A-D. It was time for the next dose of both medicines crucial to fighting off the 103 degree fever, diarrhea, and nausea I’d had for the past three days. After finally finding the bottles at the very bottom of my carry on, I washed the pills down with a small amount of water. I sat back in the cramped seat, put on my noise canceling headphones, closed my eyes, and tried to get comfortable. I had already knocked out 6 hours of traveling, but still had more than 14 hours till I would land in Chicago where my wife would be waiting. She would then drive me the three hours home and to the hospital. In an effort to refocus my mind off the intense pain in my abdomen, I began thinking about the excitement of how this trip started.
Six days prior, I was full of excitement and feeling great. I had rented a bright red Ford 150 to haul my bags and eight wheelchairs to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a flight the next day to Nepal. I was one of two photographers assigned to capture an expedition that included celebrities, veterans, and climbing enthusiasts. I had also managed to team up with the expedition leaders and non-profit, Reach Out and Care (ROC) Wheelchairs, to bring 8 wheelchairs to kids at the Center for Disabled Children Assistance (CDCA) in Kathmandu, Nepal. As someone who is incredibly hard on myself, I was flying high, filled excitement of the trip to come. I was living a dream, photographing an expedition in Nepal, something I said I was going to do when I was 19 years old.
I barely slept that night at O’Hare. I was traveling the world for the first by myself, since coming home from Iraq and my mind was running like an express train, nonstop. The annoying sound of the morning alarm came quickly. As I begrudgingly got out of bed the realization that I was embarking on a lifelong dream set in as I hurried to get ready for the day. Less than 40 minutes later I was on the airport shuttle with all my baggage and wheelchairs in tow, next stop O’Hare International Terminal.
I faced one last hurdle in getting the wheelchairs to the children who needed them; the airline needed to accept them as my prepaid excess baggage. I was nervous that when they saw the size and weight of the ROC Wheels boxes, they would not accept them without at least charging a significantly higher price. I hired a porter to help me navigate the check-in process and he got me to the front of the line incredibly quick. I was a little underprepared for the Agent. I fumbled with my bag furiously trying find all my documentation, including the letters from ROC Wheels and CDCA stating the wheelchairs were for humanitarian purposes. Once I located it all, the agent had a short conversation with me, then her supervisor, and checked in all my bags and the wheelchairs. The relief of accomplishing this goal was like a 100 pounds coming off my shoulders. All I had to worry about now was getting comfortable for the 22 hours of travel ahead of me.
A quick trip through the maze of the security checkpoint and I was out on the other side with just enough time to visit the men’s room and buy a bottle of water, before joining the long line of world travelers boarding our flight to Abu Dhabi. I managed my way on to the plane finding my seat, 22a, put up my carryon and crawled to the window where I hunkered down for the 14 1/2 hour flight. I’m not going to lie, it was a long flight in cramped economy seats. Arriving in Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t wait to stretch my legs and as I walked through the airport. The smells and sounds of my past experience in the Middle East came rushing back to me, like putting a movie on fast rewind taking you straight to a moment from your past. Especially the smell of food which reminded me of the hustle and bustle of Iraqi markets. I found myself studying my surroundings, not because of fear or worry, but to take in the beauty of the airport’s amazing design. After a few checkpoints I made it to the gate of the next flight into Kathmandu. I was only four and half hours from arriving in a place I had been dreaming of visiting for 19 years.
Before I knew it I heard the familiar sound of the landing gear being deployed and then gently landing on the runway at 8:10pm. The airport in Kathmandu was what I expected it to be, but I still found myself overwhelmed trying to take in all the sights and sounds. A number of expedition teammates had been on the same flight, which was awesome because they helped with the wheelchairs. As we all located our bags and wheelchairs we then headed to customs, where I met for the first time, Dendi Sherpa, founder of the CDCA. Upon greeting each other, Dendi gave me a bright yellow scarf, a big hug, and welcomed me to Nepal. It was for the first time that I realized how much the wheelchairs meant to him and the children who would be receiving them. I felt overwhelmed with the gratitude. After navigating Kathmandu airport, we loaded our vans and headed to our hotel. It was late so once we arrived at the hotel we got a quick bite to eat and then went straight to bed.
Once again morning came quick and I heard the absurdly annoying chirp of my alarm. Wiping crusty sleep from my dry eyes, I rolled out of bed and began to get my jet lagged body ready for the day. It took about 5 minutes before I realized that I was finally going to meet the children who would receive the wheelchairs. Instantly there was a bounce to my step, and I got ready faster than when I was in basic training. I grabbed my camera bag, headed out the door, double checking to make sure it locked, and headed to the lobby to meet up with the rest of our expedition team. Breakfast was a ham and cheese omelet, bacon, and a cup of coffee. I ate it like I hadn’t eaten in years. Next we had a quick briefing in the courtyard about the day’s events and timelines. Outside the big glass door of the hotel, I observed light grey minivans waiting to take us to the CDCA. Since we arrived at night I was getting to see the city for the first time. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to what I was seeing and what cities looked like in Iraq. I was taking it all in and was truthfully a bit terrified driving through the crazy streets of Kathmandu. It moves fairly fast and all over the road, an interesting experience for sure.
After about 20 minutes of that crazy life threatening drive we arrived at a stopping point, followed by a steep uphill hike to the center. I will never forget walking through the gate of the CDCA and feeling all the love that was within it’s walls. There were little smiling faces everywhere I looked. We immediately went to work getting wheelchairs built, setting up the one day clinic, and delivering products donated to the organization by our sponsors. I did my best to capture it all through photographs. Everywhere I looked there were heart-warming moments to capture. As I looked through my small rectangular view finder, my bucket slowly filled with hope and love. With so much going on, time flew by, and before I knew it we were breaking for lunch. We walked back down the hill, took a couple of lefts and rights, and entered a building that reminded me of someone’s house. We walked up stairs and entered a restaurant which our team members filled entirely. The atmosphere was full of laughter and joy talking about our morning at the CDCA, while eating delicious food. After lunch, my friend Denny, another veteran, and I went back to the center to finish building the wheelchairs while everyone else had to return to the hotel for gear checks for our climb in the Himalayas. The time he and I spent there that afternoon was hot and exhausting, but the rewarding moments spent at the CDCA, with the children, and my good friend outweighed any physical discomfort I felt.
As day two began, I woke up with a smile on my face and eager to get the day started. I rushed through my personal hygiene, grabbed my camera bag, and headed down to lobby for breakfast. I ordered a ham and cheese omelet with a side of bacon again, but instead of coffee I had a juice and latte. After that leisurely breakfast, I hurried out to the grey minivans waiting in the hotel courtyard to make sure I got the front seat, I wanted to shoot a video of the crazy drive. I was excited to get back to CDCA. The day was a bit more relaxed, which allowed me more time to focus on the kids and learning about how they spend their days at the CDCA. I got to play soccer with kids in the courtyard, while getting to see relief on the mother’s faces as their children were being properly fitted into the new wheelchairs. I got a sunburn, but most importantly my bucket was over flowing with love, joy, and hope. I was happy to be a part of doing some good in this world. I was proud when I looked at myself in the mirror and felt like this was something that would be inspiring to my own children. The trip was off to a great start and I was living my dream. It had been life changing. It made me believe that I really could change the world, especially the one that surrounds me. As the day came to a close, I found myself looking forward to getting out to mountains and walking among the giants.
I did not expect what happened next, but the next morning at 1:30am I abruptly woke up and ran to the restroom. I couldn’t get my shorts down fast enough as I sat down on the cold toilet seat. I don’t need to describe what happened next but shortly after sitting on the toilet, I felt the need to throw up. I couldn’t get off the toilet seat so I contorted myself into an odd shape to reach the trash, in which I immediately threw up. It went on this way for about an hour an half, before I felt like I could return to bed. When our meet up time came later that morning for the trip to the Himalayas I couldn’t go. I needed to stay in Kathmandu and deal with my health. The next two days were no better than the first, and I knew there was no way I could go on the trip. Even though I had started antibiotics, I was not getting better. I still had diarrhea, vomiting, and a high fever. I immediately changed my plane ticket and made plans to return home.
Once at home I was admitted to the hospital for 8 days fighting an antibiotic resistant salmonella and a severe case of colitis with ulcers in my large intestines the size of dimes. Even now after 8 weeks I still am not back at my 100%. Yet, despite the personal cost of illness and disappointment of returning early and not photographing an expedition in Nepal - when asked if I would do it again - my answer is a resounding “Yes!” I would make the same trip because it made a difference in at least eight children’s lives.
"This experience has taught me so many lessons about life and work, but the biggest is how resilient the human spirit is and what can be accomplished when working in unison for the betterment of others."
"...I remembered I needed to pick up the clothes I left at the tailor in March. After picking them up, I headed home and I was excited to try them on, but when I put on the first pair of dress pants and buttoned them; they fell straight to my ankles highlighting how much weight and inches I have lost since March."