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Autoimmune disease doesn't stop IU student from reaching new heights


IU sophomore Sneha Dave climbed Mount Kilimanjaro during winter break. At age 6, Dave was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that targets the colon and has given Dave fatigue and abdominal tenderness.  Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

Challenging her limitations, Sneha Dave neared the end of her journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. After powering through dizziness and days of climbing, she was greeted by forceful, cold winds, she said. 

She could have stopped. But she didn't.

“It was worth the climb to see the Kilimanjaro summit sign in person,” Dave said.

Dec. 25, 2017, Dave, a sophomore at IU, successfully climbed to the highest point in Africa.

Located in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro is the fourth of the seven highest summits in the world. Dave was accompanied by her parents and older sister in the the mountainside journey, which lasted a total of seven days — five to ascend and two to descend.

Adding to the difficulty of the climb, Dave made the 19,341-foot trek while enduring health complications.

At age 6, Dave was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that not only targets the colon but also affects the entire body. Some of those effects, at least for Dave, have included fatigue and abdominal tenderness. 

In the beginning stages of her illness Dave’s family first tried holistic, or alternative, treatments in an attempt to lessen the severity of her symptoms. When these methods proved to be ineffective, she was admitted to Riley Hospital for Children in middle school. As a Riley kid, she had her first major operation in 2012 to extract the entirety of her large intestine.

“Having your colon removed can be pretty defeating and emotionally challenging,” Dave said. “But Riley is a great hospital that focuses on the whole care of the patient rather than just the immediate needs.”

The day Dave received her first operation, registered nurse Philip Flory was working on the floor after her surgery. The two clicked, and Dave said she trusted that Flory would look after her. Every surgery after that, she requested Flory as her nurse.

“Having people you can rely on in your most vulnerable moments is powerful,” Dave said. “He’s one of my favorite people.”

Dave has left an impression on many people. To provide others with resources they may need to overcome illnesses similar to hers, Dave developed nonprofit organizations, the Crohn's and Colitis Young Adults Network and the Health Advocacy Summit.

“I learned a lot from her,” Flory said. “Not only about her time she spent as an inpatient but just her general outlook on life. Seeing her persevere through her struggles and still have the desire to help out others is inspiring.”

After climbing a mountain of hardships brought on by her condition, Dave was ready to climb a real one despite knowing the potential health risks.

“My family has always really liked hiking," Dave said. "I was also born in West Virginia near the Appalachian Mountains, so maybe it’s just always been in my blood.”

Dave explained although it’s difficult to train for differences in altitude, it’s easy to prepare for repetitive body movements. Climbing an absurd amount of stairs is essential, she said.

“I appreciate that mountains require you push yourself mentally and physically,” Dave said. “I like that it feels good to be away from everyday hustle and bustle every once in a while,” Dave said.

The last 2,000 feet of the climb were tough, Dave admits. It is called The Assault for a reason. Because of the low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, she described reaching the top as anticlimactic and a bit disorienting.

IU sophomore Sneha Dave climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over winter break. At age 6, Dave was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that targets the colon and has given Dave fatigue and abdominal tenderness. Despite the disease, Dave still made the 19,341-foot trek up the mountain.  Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

The family was able to spend only 10 minutes at the summit before making the decision to move again due to dangerous weather conditions. With barely a break to catch their breath, the group members began the two-day trek down the mountainside.

“The descent is difficult," Dave said. "You’re constantly being pulled down by gravity down a sharp decline, and it’s hard on your joints.”

Once safely back on the ground, the family embarked on a weeklong safari to explore Tanzania.

“I’m so glad my family and I had the experience, but I saw way too many giraffes,” Dave said. “I was really hoping to climb Mount Meru. It’s meant to be a warmup for Kilimanjaro, but I think we would have had fun.”

In 2020, Dave plans on climbing Mount Elbrus — the third highest of the seven summits — with plans to eventually conquer them all.

“You have to 100 percent commit to something," Dave said. "If you’re not all in, you won’t be able to do it.”

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