Climbing for Dad
They climbed the final steps toward the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro arm in arm, big sister and little brother, each holding onto a piece of a Gator flag emblazoned with dozens of names.
John, Matthew, Linda, Rick …
Rick.Tears welled in her eyes as Amy Bucciarelli, M.S., ATR-BC, LMHC, reached the summit, the highest peak in Africa, with her brother, Chris Bucciarelli, M.D. Around them, dawn broke, sunlight escaping over the horizon. They had been waiting for this moment for months, ever since Amy, an art therapist for UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, had proposed the idea of participating in the Climb For Cancer Foundation’s annual climb as a tribute to their father and to raise funds to combat the disease threatening his life.
Their father, Richard “Rick” Bucciarelli, M.D., a longtime faculty member in the department of pediatrics division of neonatology and former chair of the College of Medicine department of pediatrics, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of melanoma two years ago. After initial surgery and therapy two years ago, he relapsed last year.
Amy, who works with cancer patients as an art therapist, heard about the climb last year from Barbara Bour, a former physical therapist who worked with childhood cancer patients at the UF Health Cancer Center. Although Amy had never climbed a mountain before — or even camped — the idea appealed to her. Her dad often took her to a mountain in Utah to hike when she was little, before the family moved to Gainesville, and she liked the idea of raising money for the foundation, which uses its funds to directly support patient needs at UF Health Shands Hospital as well as cancer research projects.
“Last summer, he relapsed pretty significantly. I experienced this feeling of sheer helplessness,” Amy said. “I help people every day, but I felt like there was nothing I could do to help my dad. A lot of patients directly benefit from the Climb for Cancer Foundation. I physically see what it is doing to help those families. (So I decided) I am going to climb a mountain for my dad. That is what I am going to do.”
Amy signed up to go on the climb, a part of which included raising at least $25,000 for the foundation.
“After I told my dad, it became very meaningful for everyone in our family,” Amy said.
Writing in his blog, their dad wrote, “As many of you know, Amy and Chris were inspired by our family experience to become part of fund-raising effort to push cancer research even further. They both will be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in July with the Climb for Cancer team … They are climbing in my name and so is the team leader, Ron Farb. I am quite honored to be recognized in this manner.”
Although he was in full support of Amy’s trip, Chris, a resident in the department of emergency medicine in the College of Medicine, wasn’t sure initially if he could go. It’s challenging for residents to take long chunks of time off and the trip would last two weeks.
“When my dad relapsed, I felt like it was a sign,” Chris said. “This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I would regret it if I was not a part of it. Also, I thought it was important to honor my dad, and it was a stronger statement if Amy and I did it together.”
With the support of friends and family, Amy and Chris raised $28,000 for the Climb for Cancer Foundation while preparing for the climb. The approaching trip also changed how the family handled what they were going through. Since Rick’s diagnosis, the family had kept much of their struggles to themselves. But preparing for the climb gave them reason to open up to more people, resulting in what Amy described as an “outpouring of support.”
“People not only shared their financial support and emotional support but also they shared their own personal stories. It was this community that was built around this experience,” she said. “When we did the actual climb, it felt like we had hundreds of people behind us.”
In July with five other members of a Gainesville team, Amy and Chris left for Mount Kilimanjaro. Their team joined with another team from Malibu, California to ascend the mountain.
It took five-and-a-half days to make it to the summit. Neither Amy or Chris had ever camped before, so the first day’s biggest challenge came when they reached the spot to camp for the night. They were running late and had little time to organize their supplies before the light faded, Chris said.
“Each night, we got better,” he said.
Considering that the trip was meant to be a tribute to their father, it’s fitting that they spent much of the second day’s hike taking care of people. One of their fellow hikers grew ill the second day, and as a physician, Chris stayed with him. Amy played the role of motivator, helping to keep them going until they could get the man to safety.
On the third day, they made it over the clouds.
“It was a surreal view,” Chris said. “You wake up and look down and see clouds. It looks like a sea of white.”
As they climbed further up the mountain, the landscape changed, trees and vegetation fading away into a barren, desert landscape. To Chris, it felt like stepping onto the surface of Mars.
The day of the summit, they left camp at 11 p.m., aiming to reach the summit by dawn. By the time they saw the signs that they were about to reach the highest point, Amy started to tear up, realizing how close they were to their goal and thinking about all the emotion behind it.
“In that moment I was overwhelmed with making it to the top, the air was already thin. It made it even more difficult to breathe when I started to cry.”
Her brother took her arm to support her, and arm in arm, they walked the remaining 50 yards to the summit.
Initially, their father was thinking of flying to Africa to meet them at the bottom of the mountain, but his health was not strong enough. Instead, Amy and Chris called him and their mother from a satellite phone.
Their father chronicled the moment on his blog, writing, “At 12:12 am. EDT via satellite phone one of the most welcomed sounds we have heard in a long time! ‘We’re are on the top!’ ‘The view is spectacular!’ ‘We feel terrific!’ It was wonderful to hear their voices from half a world away and know they have hit the mark and are safe.”
The trip has brought the already close family even closer together.
“He was really touched by it,” Chris said. “I think for him it was like a grand gesture. My sister was the one who raised all the money, that showed my dad how much we care and how much this community cares and all the love and support we have from our friends and family.
“He is an amazing guy,” Chris said of his father. “To this day, even this morning, when people hear my last name they always say ‘Are you related to Dr. Bucciarelli?’ And I say, ‘Yes, that is my dad,’ and they always say ‘He is the nicest person in the world.’”
Do they plan to climb mountains again? Chris says maybe, but Amy isn’t so sure. One thing is certain, the experience of climbing the mountain, persevering and getting to know new people along the way has given both siblings new perspectives on life, patient care and more.
“I will continue to tell the story of it,” Amy said. “Everyday since I have been back I have had new insight to it. I will continue to unpack that for a long time.”
After this article was published, Dr. Bucciarelli died peacefully with loved ones surrounding him on Sept. 20.