Whilst most teenagers spent their summer taking a well earned break from school, sisters Hollie and Jessica Cowdean were definitely not relaxing - they were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro!
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which rises 19,340 feet above sea level, would be a challenge for anyone but for Hollie and Jessica, who live in Lambeg, the challenge is even greater, as both suffer from scolioses of the spine.
Hollie (14) wears a full torso spinal brace for 23 hours a day and 15 year-old Jessica is recovering from major surgery, which fitted two titanium rods and 21 screws into her spine.
Dr Padraig Sheeran and Dr Ellie O’Leary from Kilimanjaro Achievers and three other doctors were with the girls throughout and monitored them constantly.
The team took the Le Mosho route beginning at Londrossi gate, this saw then enter into the tropical rainforest, moving onto savannah with tall grasses and moreland, desert, volcanic rock before the temperature dropped and glaciers were in view.
Hollie (age 14), wearing her spinal brace, made the climb to over 10,000 feet before the medical decision was made for her to descend.
Hollie was completely devastated with this decision but knew that she had to follow the doctors guidance as to continue may have been life threatening. Dr Ellie O’Leary made the descent with Hollie and stayed with her constantly throughout the stay in Africa, taking amazing care of her through her recovery.
“I was so upset at having to come down from the mountain and not reaching the very top,” said Hollie, “but I know it was for the best and unavoidable due to my condition.
“I am proud though of how far I did get and I understand the medical aspect was something not in my control but sure next time I know I will reach the top.”
Jessica (15), who underwent major spinal surgery for her scoliosis in December 2013, went on to the summit, which she describes as the hardest challenge she has ever ever undertook.
“It was the best experience of my entire life, it was something I never dreamed I could achieve, especially with my condition,” said Jessica.
“I am so proud of myself. I would do it all over again.”
This last part of the upward trek began at midnight, continuing through the night, in arctic conditions, culminated with Jessica at dawn reaching Stella point, 18, 652 feet.
Jessica said that she definitely could not have made the trek if it wasn’t for the constant encouragement help and support from Dr. Padraig Sheeran.
Jessica also views one of the Kilimanjaro guides, Nicholas as being a very important factor in her journey. Nicholas walked with her and encouraged her to keep going.
The girls both agree that the experience was completely life changing for them.
Their mother Elizabethsaid: “I would like to thank, kilimanjaro achievers, especially Dr Padraig Sheeran and Dr Ellie O’ Leary. Also, Dublin based Physiotherapist, Alison Quinn, who was and continues to be a constant source of advice and help regarding the girls condition and helping them to prepare for the climb. Straight2swimming’s Edel Convery for her encouragement, support and help and for establishing the amazing straight2swimming swim club for scoliosis youth, the first swim cub of its kind in the world, based in Belfast.”
The girls would also like to warmly thank everyone who has sponsored them through the various fundraising events they held.
The sisters hope that there is now more awareness of the debilitating condition of scoliosis, that parents are more aware and can check and monitor their children’s backs, especially girls as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is much more prevalent in girls.
Both Jessica and Hollie would very much hope that others with the condition see what they, and the other twogirls with scoliosis who undertook the climb, can achieve.
During their trip, the sisters visited and helped out in several orphanages when they were away.
Through their fundraising, the girls were able to bring out much needed clothes, toys and educational resources which were very much appreciated. The girls were really struck by the orphans who had nothing and yet were so happy.
“My orphanage visits made me realise that we were raising money for a very good cause, as well as raising awareness of the condition of scoliosis,” said Hollie.
“Visiting the orphanage for babies was very eye opening as they were so very happy even though they have no families and very little material goods,” added Jessica.
But the story doesn’t quite end there.
A few weeks ago the Cowdean family found out that Dr Sheeran had entered the girls into the prestigious ‘Irish Healthcare Awards’ and they were shortlisted.
Jessica and Hollie were invited to attend the awards ceremony in the Shelborne Hotel, in Dublin and much to their delight the girls wonthe award.