Andy Doraiswamy is an unassuming man with a noble cause and a big heart. A man with a simple, yet daring, plan to climb the highest peak on each continent to raise funds and awareness to combat preventable blindness. His quest is to use his unique position and skill set to help Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International restore sight and transform as many lives as possible.
In his professional role as director of research and development at Advanced Vision Science (AVS) in Goleta, Doraiswamy has worked with AVS and its parent company, Santen Pharmaceuticals Ltd., to donate 1,022 state-of-the-art intraocular lenses to SEE International since 2012. That alone is impressive, but his adventures with the organization he founded, Summit For Cure!, are truly inspiring.
Doraiswamy created Summit For Cure! in 2010 with the idea of climbing the tallest mountain on each continent and raising as many dollars as each mountain’s height (in meters). As Doraiswamy says, “100 percent of funds raised go directly to SEE International and I pay my own trek and travel costs.”
In the months leading up to January 2013, he raised $7,050 for SEE before attempting to climb Aconcagua (Ah-cone-caw-gwah), a peak of 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) in Argentina, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayan range in South Asia.
Doraiswamy knew Aconcagua would be his most daunting challenge yet, even though he has climbed Rathong Peak in Nepal (21,909 feet), Mont Blanc in France (15,781 feet), Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (19,340 feet), Mount Whitney in California (14,505 feet) and Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia (13,435 feet). Aconcagua is one of the most difficult and dangerous mountains on earth. About nine people die each year trying to conquer this mountain, and only one of every four people who attempt the climb reach the summit. The word Aconcagua literally means “The Stone Sentinel.”
The expedition lasted two weeks, but it all came down to the final day of climbing. On this climactic “summit day,” Doraiswamy was at an elevation of 21,325 feet when his climbing partner started noticing early signs of the onset of pulmonary edema, an elevation-triggered condition that can kill if one does not descend a few thousand feet as quickly as possible. They had to make a decision: continue upward and risk his life, or turn back with only 1,500 feet left and let go of a dream for which he had trained so arduously.
Decisions at high altitude are not always rational. Pain is glaring, emotions run wild, oxygen is scarce, energy is drained, doubts are intensified and thoughts are blurred.
“I barely remember anything from that day,” Doraiswamy recalled. “Just snippets here and there, because my body and brain were running on fumes. The weather and mountain conditions were downright brutal. The temperature was minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds were kicking up at 80 to 90 miles per hour.”
In the end, Doraiswamy’s calm and sensible acceptance of his climbing partners’ diagnosis probably saved his life. He decided to turn back. If he had tried to conquer Aconcagua and reach the summit as a matter of personal pride, he might have died on the mountain from advanced pulmonary edema, which causes respiratory failure, hypoxia and/or cardiac arrest.
Doraiswamy undoubtedly will try that particular summit again and has a slate of treks planned out into the foreseeable future to continue in his effort to raise funds for SEE International.
“These climbs are the most physically and mentally demanding days of my life,” said Doraiswamy. “But it pales in comparison to the daily fight against preventable blindness.”
— Michael McGuirk is an advancement associate for Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International.