Upper Arlington News

Scaling the heights

Breast cancer, Parkinson's no deterrent to Everest climb

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UAHS Class of '73 members (from left) Brian Trotier, Evvie Dunkel Heilbrunn and Rick Whipple met in San Diego, where Trotier lives, in October, to meet with the Summit4StemCell group. Heilbrunn has established a website to collect donations for the group that will fund non-embryonic stem cell research to seek a treatment for Parkinson's disease.
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Lifelong ties to Upper Arlington and a local native's commitment to stand up to an incurable brain disorder -- with help from her friends -- have inspired her to climb Mount Everest next fall.

Shortly after graduating from Upper Arlington High School in 1973, Evvie (Dunkel) Heilbrunn became enamored with the prospect of one day reaching Mount Everest's Base Camp, and its more than 17,000-foot elevation.

"Certainly in all of my adulthood," said Heilbrunn, 57, now of Great Falls, Va. "It's been on my bucket list for years."

It's dream that had all but vanished.

As if a bout with breast cancer in 2000 weren't enough, Heilbrunn began to doubt she'd ever travel to Nepal and climb Mount Everest after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2009.

The disease leads to tremors and difficulty with walking, movement and coordination, and it forced Heilbrunn to retire from her law practice as a patent litigator.

Then, another cruel twist: She was forced to undergo chemotherapy after being diagnosed for a second time with breast cancer in 2011.

"My balance was really bad and my memory wasn't good," she said. "Then when I was hit with breast cancer the second time, I just figured, 'That's it. I can't do it. It's off my bucket list'."

Prior to completing chemo in March 2012, Heilbrunn began filming videos chronicling her struggle with treatment and her life and thoughts, in general, for her children.

"I didn't know if I was going to live," she said.

It was then that Heilbrunn, whose father, mother, sister and two cousins all graduated from UAHS, reconnected with Upper Arlington resident Betsy Bowen, who coincidentally was a college roommate of Heilbrunn's sister.

Bowen began editing the videos and the project helped renew Heilbrunn's resolve to fight for life.

About this time, she also resumed regular communications with UAHS classmate Greg Hadder, who himself was fighting lung cancer. The two shared war stories about chemo, as well as their dreams and fears of mortality, until time ran out on Hadder's battle.

"Greg passed away in August of 2012," Heilbrunn said. "He was a great guy."

After Hadder's death, Heilbrunn was visiting his home when his brother, Tom, mentioned he suffered from a movement disorder similar to Parkinson's.

Tom Hadder talked about Scripps Health in Southern California, where he had received treatments, and which had a program that took Parkinson's patients to climb Mount Everest.

Inspiration renewed, Heilbrunn wrote to Scripps nurse practitioner Sherrie Gould to ask if she could participate in a trip to Mount Everest.

"How do I describe it?" Heilbrunn said. "It was the most incredible, unbelievable joy. It's beyond description."

Heilbrunn not only was invited to make the trip next October, but she learned of Gould's work with Summit4StemCell, a movement to fund non-embryonic stem cell research to seek a treatment for Parkinson's while inspiring people with the disease to move beyond their physical limitations.

Heilbrunn established a website called "Ain't No Mountain High Enough,"at gofundme.com/mvc.php?route=search&term=heilbrunn.

There, people can make donations to support Summit4StemCell.

To date, she's helped raise more than $9,000 while still shooting for her goal of $50,000.

As if all these unlikely concurrences weren't enough, Heilbrunn made yet another reconnection to the UAHS class of '73 through Facebook, where she related the life journey that now points to Nepal.

Classmate Rick Whipple, who lives in St. David, Ariz., reached out in hopes of fulfilling a boyhood dream he's had "since looking at pictures in National Geographic to climb Mount Everest.

"I've always wanted to go," Whipple said. "I've been married since 1985 and on my second date with my (now) wife, I informed her that I was going to go to Mount Everest one day.

"I asked Evvie about it and she asked Scripps and they said, 'Yeah, you can go'."

In addition to his own lifelong interest in Mount Everest, Whipple said he's making the trek "really to support Evvie and help her any way I can. I'm going to support her and support the cause."

In recent months, Heilbrunn has been training with a physical therapist and recently hiked the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona with Whipple to prepare for what she fully expects to be a grueling and equally rewarding climb to Mount Everest Base Camp.

As an additional lead-up, she plans to come back to Upper Arlington for her 40-year high school reunion on July 5.

Then, it will be onward and upward to Mount Everest.

"This whole, unbelievable thing just fell in my lap," Heilbrunn said. "I was never a risk-taker, but since all this has happened to me, I've said, 'Why not?' I really want to show other people who've had life-threatening or chronic illnesses that you can do it."

Heilbrunn said she'll be climbing for her friend, who she believes led her back to her dream.

"I do think, honestly, this is a gift from Greg Hadder," she said. "I wanted to do it, and he knew I couldn't do it -- or that I thought I couldn't do it. All these coincidences, it's just amazing.

"I'm going to take a picture of Greg Hadder with me, and when I get to base camp, I'm going to leave his picture there because he made all this happen for me. I'm also going to do it for my (late) dad. He would be so proud of me."

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