Updated: Jun 11, 2018
Mt. Kilimanjaro hadn’t seen a snowstorm in mid-September in 10 years. The ground was wet. The wind howled. A blanket of darkness settled like dread in her stomach. Despite a lifetime of heart disease, 61-year-old Naomi Carmona-Morshead was climbing the final ascent to the summit – with only a snowstorm and the threat of peril standing in her way.
She’d reached the cloud cover, and as she watched her teammates disappear into a wall of white fog, Naomi’s steps quickened. This was it. The summit was just on the other side. Emerging from the clouds, Naomi was engulfed in warm sunlight. All was calm. She did it. Born with a congenital heart defect, the Santa Clarita resident has undergone open heart surgery and 15 years of treatment since birth to be considered “healthy.” But even after years of challenge, healthy wasn’t enough. At age 61, Naomi began training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, to prove her health to herself and other congenital heart patients. After all, once you’ve defied all the odds, why not try again?
“When I had my open heart surgery in 1964,” she said, “pediatric heart surgery was considered experimental. Doctors would do 100 surgeries, and one would survive. I was lucky to be that one. Now, in contrast to my chance at survival, I want 101 to live: 100 congenital heart patients, plus me.” .
Diagnosed as a young child, Carmona-Morshead’s congenital heart defect put restrictions on her physical limitations. Running made her tire easily. Jumping rope brought on fainting spells. She often caught colds and sore throats, which kept her at home, away from other children. “I could only run one length of the field before collapsing,” Carmona-Morshead said. “If I could breathe, that’s all I cared about.”
By age 9, she was placed in a National Institute of Health study, which would continue until age 30, to examine the history and causes of the defect. A year later, she underwent an extremely risky surgery to repair her Bicuspid Aortic valve. By age 15, Naomi was declared “healthy” by her doctor and told she would live a somewhat normal life. While her heart would continue to place restrictions on her life and capabilities for decades to come, at least she was alive.
As Naomi grew up, she learned more about her condition, slowly shifting her focus from surviving to thriving. In the last four years, she has examined all the areas of her life: fitness, nutrition, stress management, sleep, mindset and other daily habits. She took up hiking, completing easy day trips with her husband. Each day, she felt stronger – so strong, in fact, that one day she decided to do something crazy. “I wanted to climb a mountain, and I believed I would,” she said. “But I had no idea what it would take.”
Though Naomi had been slowly building her strength, the day hikes weren’t physically demanding. So to reach her goal, she began seriously training for seven months, with the intent to reach a summit. She successfully climbed Mount Langley, Bishop’s Peak and others.
And then she let her heart settle on Mount Kilimanjaro – a 51-mile, eight-day climb to the top of a 19,000-foot mountain. Each year, 20,000 people attempt the climb to Mt. Kilimanjaro; about 8,000 people actually reach the highest peak. Those who complete the climb ascend through six different climates, from rainforest to pine forest to glacier and more. The task seems daunting for anyone; for Naomi, it was a challenge beyond imagination.
Despite the obstacles, Naomi trusted her heart. In late September, she and her husband left base camp and began the trek. Eight days later they returned triumphant. “I wasn’t a mountain climber 9 months ago,” Naomi said. “But each day on that mountain, when I thought of how much I had left to go, I remembered I’d already come so far. Every day’s experience was a blessing. I found a personal belief in myself that didn’t come in the beginning. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s an amazing feeling.” Today, Naomi’s doctor says her heart is stronger than it was 10 years ago; it seems she’s setting back the clock on her health. And if you ask Naomi, her heart is happier than it’s ever been.
“My doctor said I am probably the healthiest 61-year-old adult congenital heart patient in America,” she said. “That’s why I got clearance to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.” Though completing the climb is an incredible personal victory, Naomi is determined to share it. Spreading awareness about her story and accomplishments, she hopes to raise funds for Burbank non-profit Mending Kids, which provides surgical care to children around the globe who do not otherwise have access. One heart surgery for an African child costs $3,000, and Naomi hopes to raise enough for 100 surgeries in her lifetime. “I don’t want to die from disease, and I never want to see this happen to another child,” she said. “So I made an agreement to do everything I could to be as healthy as possible – and make sure others are, too.”