On a Saturday in May 2017, I umpired eight field hockey games in eight hours, four in the rain. That was nothing unusual for me.

I learned to love field hockey watching my daughter, Alaina, play in high school and college, and we often umpired games together in big tournaments. The next day, I went to plant a tree in the backyard and I was so exhausted I could barely complete the task. I took a three-hour nap, and two more naps before I went to bed. My wife will tell you that in 35 years of marriage I never before napped like that.

By Tuesday I was on my way to the intensive-care unit. I couldn't breathe. I was told I had a lung disease that had been lurking unnoticed for years. I was eventually diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, which causes lung tissue not to work efficiently, and myositis, which can cause inflammation that scars the lungs.

For years I had gotten walking pneumonia every February, but I always took medicine and it went away. However, by that Tuesday last May, 75 percent of my lungs was scarred, permanently destroyed.

I flew fighter jets for the Air Force as a young man and I relish big challenges. In fact, I had been training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet, with my daughter. But, suddenly, I was facing the biggest challenge of my life, lying in bed on 15 liters of oxygen, hungering for breath.

The worst night of my life came two weeks later. I had biopsy surgery so the doctors could figure out what, if anything, could be done to help me. I was on a ventilator, heavily sedated, my hands strapped to the bed so I wouldn't pull all my tubes out.  I was unsure whether this was a permanent or temporary condition. At one point, my wife said I was tapping a message in Morse code on her hand, because I couldn't speak. My Air Force survival skills were kicking in. All night long, my wife said, I had two towels rolled up, one in each hand, and I was pumping my fists up and down. They thought I was delirious from the anesthesia and sedation.

I can't speak to any of that. But I remember this: I was gripping my hiking sticks. I could see myself at Horombo Hut, at 50 percent oxygen, and up in the distance I could see Stella Point,  and eventually I was just 1,000 meters from Uhuru Peak, the summit. In that bed, in my mind, I was climbing that mountain.

An unusual approach

Doctors determined pretty quickly that I needed a left-lung transplant to survive.

Though I live in Lancaster, I went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in June. After two weeks of testing, the doctors came into my room, and shut the door. They said they perform about 12 lung transplants a year, and my case was too high risk. "You've been declined," the doctor told me. Then she drew close, as if she were sharing a secret. "If you were my father," she said, "I'd go to Temple."

Devastated at being rejected by Hopkins, and so weak and sick from the disease and surgeries, I needed two weeks in a specialized rehabilitation facility in Baltimore.

Then, on June 22, my nurse navigator Jannifer found the email address of Gerard Criner, who runs the Temple lung program, and I sent him an email detailing my medical background and history.

"My approach may be a little unusual," I wrote. "But I would like you to accept my lung transplant case from my doctor at Johns Hopkins University Hospital."

By the next morning, I had received a reply from the doctor, saying he'd be happy to review my records. A month later I was in Temple Hospital for my transplant.

In 2017, Temple performed more lung transplants — 127 — than any other hospital in the United States, and I am one of those lucky 127.

Back to training

I can't explain it, but I never stopped thinking about climbing the "Roof of Africa." I could barely walk for six minutes, but I kept imagining that summit, standing there with my daughter.  I'll bet nearly 100 nurses and doctors listened to me talk about my plans to climb Kilimanjaro with my new lung. They all rolled their eyes. One told me, "That will never happen."  But I knew deep down I would one day be on the mountain.

David Skalski before surgery with his recovery dog, Kibo.
Courtesy of David Skalski
David Skalski before surgery with his recovery dog, Kibo.

On Aug. 1, I had a left-lung transplant and then began my extraordinary recovery. I was in the intensive-care unit for only 18 hours. I left the hospital in a week to rehab at home.  I completed my 600-foot walk test within one month.  By the end of month two, I was walking around my neighborhood.

Five months post-transplant, I have restarted my Kilimanjaro training schedule in earnest.  Outfitted with climbing boots, hiking poles, and a full backpack, I am walking the  neighborhood seven days a week. And, while I'm feeling good physically, I truly believe 75 percent of my recovery has been in my mind.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is also a test of the mind. It is a long, slow trek.  The mountain is considered a non-technical climb, which means no ropes, no picks and no pitons — just hiking for seven or eight days.  Professional guides lead the way on established paths and porters carry the bulk of the load, including tents, sleeping bags, food and water.  Hikers need only tote their personal gear in a day pack.

The penultimate experience is the summit approach.  This day starts at midnight so climbers arrive at Uhuru Peak at sunrise, standing literally on top of the clouds. Most climbers say it is the hardest thing they have ever done because of the extremely high altitude, but the most rewarding, too.

After that horrible night in May, when I was strapped to a hospital bed full of tubes, my daughter said to me, "Dad, you have already conquered the mountain." And in so many ways I have.

We plan to begin the trek in January 2019, reaching the summit on my 64th birthday. Maybe it's madness. Maybe it's foolishness. But I recently discovered that in August – when I was getting my new lung — eight lung transplant patients from Central Europe successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

No lung transplant patient from the United States has done so — yet. I want to be the first.