Lydia Pond, in front, snaps a photo with the entire Team Fox and their guides on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Less than a month after Lydia Pond thought she had died on the side of Africa's highest mountain, the recreation coordinator was back to work for the start of the fall term Monday at North Central College in Naperville.
Pond was one of 10 people accepted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to raise at least $10,000 by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August.
"I never in a million years thought I'd get picked," Pond said.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done emotionally, physically and spiritually," the Plainfield woman said. "My body hurt. It's not like you get a lot of rest sleeping on the hard ground. The sheer length of the climb eventually catches up with you."
A fateful stumble near the top of Kilimanjaro, a mountain in Tanzania that rises 19,341 feet above sea level, might have ended her journey to the summit. Instead, it solidified her commitment to raising money to find a cure in honor of her mother, Melcy Pond, who has lived with Parkinson's disease for two decades.
"It was never about us conquering a mountain; it was about conquering for people who can't," Lydia Pond said.
Nearly a million people in the United States live the chronic and progressive movement disorder marked by tremors of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; and impaired balance and coordination, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.
An odd change in Melcy Pond's gait the family noticed when after she turned 40 led to a battery of tests and her Parkinson's disease diagnosis. Lydia was just 10 at the time.
Melcy Pond was able to hide the disease for years in her career as a civil engineer.
But because symptoms worsen over time, the woman who was accustom to order found she could no longer plan for the occasional chaos the disease can bring.
"You don't know when it's going to be bad," said Melcy Pond, also of Plainfield.
Melcy Pond eventually quit work and went on disability because she could no longer multitask.
She doesn't let Parkinson's control her life, and it's a message she preaches to newly diagnosed patients she counsels.
When people hear Parkinson's disease, Melcy Pond said they think of wheelchairs and nursing homes.
She maintains it's necessary to keep moving to stave off the disease's progressive grip.
Among her activities, Melcy Pond plays the euphonium with the Joliet Junior College Community Band, performs on the piano at an adult day care center, and swims with her daughter at a pool.
That same driving spirit compelled her daughter to consider the climb.
"I am an opportunistic traveler. This makes sense for who I am and what I do," Lydia Pond said. "Besides, my success is her success."
Melcy Pond wasn't surprised by her daughter, noting "she's always up for a challenge."
What was most shocking is that her daughter hit her minimum fundraising goal in less than a week.
"I couldn't believe it. (Donors) came out of the woodwork for her," Melcy Pond said.
"It's very humbling," Lydia Pond said. "I would never have been able to say thank you enough to everyone who donated."
Lydia Pond knew no one when her journey up Mount Kilimanjaro — scheduled to take seven days up and two days back — began Aug. 9.
Lydia Pond, recreation coordinator at North Central College in Naperville, joined the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s team that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease and money for its research. (Lydia Pond)
She said the 10 members of Team Fox had little in common at first, other than the bond of knowing someone with Parkinson's disease. Now they all have a friendship nurtured from the experience.
After five days of climbing, Lydia Pond said she was exhausted.
"I could not chew, walk and breathe at the same time. That really was the start of my demise," she said.
Team Fox was to leave camp on the sixth day at 8 a.m. with plans to stop for lunch at 2 p.m. and rest for a while at the higher camp before departing for the mountain's peak after dinner to watch the sun rise.
The day failed to go as scheduled, largely because half the team stopped frequently to rest.
"When we got to camp, it was 4:30 p.m. and it was snowing," Lydia Pond said.
The team realized the climbers would need to divide into two groups to successfully summit.
Pond's group, which included a woman and her husband who had Parkinson's disease, left at 10:30 p.m. on a slow and steady pace to be followed by the second, faster, group at midnight.
Lydia Pond said shortly after leaving camp the woman fainted, and guides carried her and the husband down the mountain for medical care as the three remaining members of the slow team trudged forward.
An hour later, Lydia Pond tripped, landing face-down in the snow.
Disoriented from the high attitude and hitting her head in the fall, Lydia Pond said when she first opened her eyes all she could see was a white light.
"I thought I was dead, and all I could think of was that my mom is going to be so mad," she said.
Team members rolled her over to reveal the white light was the snow illuminated by her headlamp.
"I realized my trip was over," Lydia Pond said, though she still tried to convince others she was fine.
The guides weren't having any of it.
As the remaining members of the slow group marched ahead, Pond started back down with a guide.
"I'm at peace with the outcome … It was pretty evident I was done," she said.
While Lydia Pond doesn't remember much due to continued disorientation, she recalls meeting up with the fast group and crying briefly with teammates.
On the journey, Lydia Pond spoke about her mother and the hat she carried in memory of her brother, Kemp Pond, who died in a motorcycle accident five years ago.
"When I do something cool, I wear it. It's something I do," she said.
Her intention was to wear it at the summit, but that would be impossible.
Instead, Team Fox members grabbed the hat from Lydia's backpack and brought it to the summit. "It's almost better than me making it," she said.
While Lydia Pond, recreation coordinator at North Central College in Naperville, fell short of reaching the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a hat once worn by her brother, Kemp Pond, made it and was pictured on the sign in Lydia’s stead. (Lydia Pond)
Lydia Pond hiked through the night arriving at the ranger station at 6 a.m., about the same time the team summited. She'd finish her descent and spend the night at a hotel before leaving for home.
"One day I was on a mountain in Africa, and the next I'm mowing my lawn in the suburbs," Lydia Pond said.
While she didn't reach the mountaintop, she still hopes to summit her personal goal of raising $15,000 to fund research programs to help find a cure for Parkinson's disease.
"It's the journey, not the destination," Lydia Pond said.
People still can donate on the foundation's Team Fox website at https://fundraise.michaeljfox.org/Climb-Mt-Kilimanjaro/LDP.