Mar. 28, 2017

Seattleite Conquers Kilimanjaro to Fund Lupus Research


Jody and Conrad relaxing after their successful summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania


When Jody Gehrmann was diagnosed with lupus on April Fool’s Day in 1993, she feared the worst.

“I thought my life was over,” she said. “At the time, life expectancy was only 10 years (post-diagnosis) and not much information was available.”

Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that affects about 1.5 million Americans. Lupus can impact any part of the body—skin, joints, internal organs. It affects each person differently, and symptoms can range from skin rashes to kidney failure or stroke.

Jody had two small children at the time and recalled watching her daughter’s soccer game shortly after her diagnosis. She began feeling unwell—body aches, hip pain, spiking fevers and overall exhaustion.

“I was thinking, ‘how am I going to even leave the game?’” She said. “I was worried I was going to need a wheelchair just to get back to the car.”

Jody never imagined that 20 years later, she’d climb Mt. Kilimanjaro—the tallest peak in Africa—and raise more than $75,000 for lupus research and education in the process.

Jody’s journey to the summit began in 2011, two years before her ascent. She and her husband, Conrad, were driving across the I-90 bridge on Lake Washington. It was a clear day, and Mt. Rainier was glistening in the distance. Conrad and Jody had both climbed it before, and Conrad suggested they do it again. Jody looked at the volcano and had an idea.

“I wanted to try something different,” she said. “So I thought, ‘why not Kilimanjaro?’”

They planned to climb Kilimanjaro the following year. As their expedition drew closer, however, they decided to post-pone for one year.

“We knew we needed to get in really good shape,” Jody said. “We wanted the trip to be a success, in order for that to happen, we both knew that we had to get into the best shape possible.  Plus, being in our 50’s, we knew it might take longer to build a good base of fitness.”

They started working with a physical trainer, ran two half-marathons, and Conrad climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado in preparation. Kilimanjaro— at 19,341 feet above sea level—is nearly a mile higher than any mountain in the continental U.S.

In the midst of training, Jody and Conrad attended a gala for the Lupus Foundation of America. Jody was chatting with a friend there and told him about their upcoming climb. That’s when her friend suggested that the climb could be a fundraiser for lupus. Jody was hesitant at first.

“It’s hard getting out of your comfort zone and asking people for money,” Jody said. “We spent time crafting a letter, but then we sent it out to everybody we knew. We asked them to donate anything, even if it was just $5.”

She couldn’t believe the response. Friends she hadn’t seen for a decade were donating $100. She even received donations from strangers and anonymous donors. In a few short months, they had raised $75,000. To show their commitment to the cause and encourage donations, they matched their donors’ gifts. For the first $20,000 donated, Conrad and Jody matched $1 for each $2 their donors gave to the Lupus Foundation of America.

Then in September 2013, it was time to climb. They flew to Tanzania and began the seven-day trek to the summit.

“The scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” she said. “The beauty of vegetation at lower altitudes, and the vistas at the higher altitudes were not easily captured by the photographs I took.  In my whole life I’ve never been dirtier, more tired or happier than on the trip.”

Jody had to take a couple extra precautions because of her lupus. About two-thirds of people with lupus experience photosensitivity, which means sunlight can trigger more severe symptoms. The sun’s more intense rays at high elevations can compound this sensitivity. Jody was careful to apply extra sunscreen, stay covered, and pack extra medication.

Luckily, Jody’s lupus didn’t flare during the hike.

On the sixth day, they prepared for the final push to the summit. It had snowed the day before, and the path was slippery. Problematic, as they began climbing in the dark. The wind was calm as they clambered up the slopes. But Jody soon felt exhausted in the oxygen-thin air.

“The guide took my arm and said, ‘I step, you step. Don’t look up.’” She said. “When we got over the rim, we were hit by 40 mile per hour winds… It’s beautiful and you want to take pictures, but I was completely wiped.”

She and Conrad did manage to pull out their Lupus Foundation of America sign and snap a photo to share with their supporters back at home.

“When we finally came back to the base, we both felt exhausted and exhilarated at the same time,” she said. “It was really quite a feeling of accomplishment.”

Their trek up Kilimanjaro wouldn’t be their last trip to Africa. Conrad splits his time serving on the boards of two non-profits: Lupus Foundation of America and Ashesi University—a liberal arts university in Ghana. They plan to visit the campus in Accra again later this year.

Jody has come a long way since her daughter’s soccer game in 1993.

She recommended that others with lupus who want to stay active commit to self-care. Jody credited proper medication, exercise, body work, and therapy with her ability to manage her lupus and continue her travels.

The public can join Jody in the fight against lupus by coming to or supporting one of the upcoming Lupus Foundation of America events:

  • The Great Unknown Challenge--This exhilirating new fundraising event will challenge participants' ability to conquer unknown challenge. These challenges will require the use of the participants' brains, brawn and sense of adventure.
  • Walk to End Lupus Now--The national signature grassroots event of the Lupus Foundation of America.  In more than 60 cities across America, thousands of people walk to make a difference in the lives of those affected by this devastating disease. 

Be sure to follow the Lupus Foundation of America, Pacific Northwest Office on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for the latest news about events in the region.