Parkland staff members who survived ovarian cancer reach the summit

Parkland staff members who survived ovarian cancer reach the summit

Took hope to new heights on Mount Kilimanjaro

What started as a chance encounter by two Parkland Health employees has resulted in a friendship and support system that has taken them to new heights – literally.

Their story began in an education class that Nicole Moler, Advanced Practice Manager, and Jessica Baxter, Patient Safety & Clinical Risk Manager, were attending. “I noticed that Nicole was wearing an ovarian cancer pin and I asked her about it,” Jessica, a 17-year ovarian cancer survivor, recalled. The pin was a reminder that Nicole, too, is an ovarian cancer survivor who is marking her fifth year of being cancer-free.

As their talks became more frequent, Nicole learned of Jessica’s involvement with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), which began in 1991 as a grassroots organization founded by passionate ovarian cancer advocates and survivors committed to raising awareness about the disease. As an active member of the group, Jessica encouraged Nicole to get involved too.

Diagnosed at age 20, Jessica likened her cancer experience to climbing a mountain. “It can be big, scary, daunting and you never know what you might find around the corner,” she said. “You can fall, get scraped and banged up along the climb, but there is hope to get to the top.”

In this case, the top meant Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I thought it was surreal to possibly have the opportunity to live this vision, which up to now, had been an analogy for me,” Jessica said. “But I wanted to show others there is hope, and yes, your life will change with an ovarian cancer diagnosis, but your ‘new’ life post-cancer can be special and very meaningful – just put one foot in front of the other.”

When they heard about NOCC’s mission to bring “hope to new heights,” Nicole suggested they give it a shot. That meant applying to be part of NOCC TEAM TEAL, going through an interview process and being selected to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Also known as the Roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro measures 19,341 feet in elevation and is the highest single free-standing mountain above sea level globally.

The challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro, while not a technical climb, is known to be an extreme altitude mountain trek, with less than 50% of those attempting to reach the summit doing so. Thus, their arduous workout schedule was put into place. While Jessica logged hundreds of miles on a stationary bike, climbed steep inclines on a treadmill and made trips too numerous to count around White Rock Lake to build up her endurance, Nicole took full advantage of the 17-story Parkland Memorial Hospital.

“My office is on the eighth floor, so I’d go up and down the stairs whenever I needed to be in a different area of the hospital,” Nicole said, noting that it took a mere 12 minutes to go from the first floor to 17, and then back down again.

In the months leading up to the journey, Jessica and Nicole had many Zoom calls with their fellow adventurers but “being together” at the base of the mountain was different. Over dinner, they bonded with other NOCC TEAM TEAL members and after two days of getting acclimated to the altitude, began their trek on July 4 – Independence Day.

But it was not easy.

“We started out at midnight. We had headlamps on our head to guide us, but the only light was from the stars,” Jessica said, adding they were engulfed in total darkness. “One of our guides pointed out that the lights in the distance were from Kenya. I was amazed to be on a mountain and being able to see the glow of lights from another country.”

“The altitude was different. We had to dress in layers, and it was super cold,” Nicole recalled. “We had to walk so slow so we could preserve our oxygen and our breathing.”

At one point Jessica was suffering from nausea and headaches, a result of the extreme altitude, “but we had guides who were making sure we were OK,” she said. “I was monitoring my pulse and writing down any symptoms and checking in with base camp.”

Their team of trekkers took seven days to complete their journey. And through a lot of support, on and off the mountain, the 14 members of NOCC team, including all six ovarian cancer survivors, made it to the summit.

Now that they are off the mountain and back to “reality,” the pair are not ready to give up their expeditions. So, what’s next? Jessica is considering a trek to one of Mount Everest’s base camps, while Nicole is talking to her loved ones about a family trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.

As they reflect on their lives as healthcare workers, cancer survivors and mountain climbers, Jessica puts everything into perspective.

“We have one life. We can either be fearful of the future or embrace the life you are given. Doing something like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro showed how strong we were, but as I have mentioned, anyone who is fighting cancer must remember that it’s like climbing a mountain. There are peaks, valleys, ups and downs, and it requires a lot of endurance. But just remind yourself that you have more strength than you give yourself credit for and put one foot in front of the other. You’ve got this.”