‘Climb Your Mountain’ – Skalski Conquers More than Kilimanjaro

by Nick Salen, USA Field Hockey's Senior Membership Communications Coordinator

11 photos

Just a few short weeks ago, David ‘Ski’ Skalski, like many in the field hockey community, returned to large-scale action for the first time since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic paused much of the sports world at the 2021 National Indoor Tournament, presented by YOLO Sportswear. Those lucky few that managed to attend may have seen this USA Field Hockey Umpire stride up and down the courts at Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster, Pa. But to Ski, it was just another mountain conquered as he moves forward on his path to total recovery.

Skalski at the 2021 National Indoor Tournament, presented by YOLO SportswearLast October, Ski and his daughter, Alaina, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa. This was a bucket list item that was 10 years in the making, as he required just as many critical surgeries to make that a reality.

It all started on a Saturday in May 2017, when Ski wrapped up officiating eight consecutive field hockey matches, four outdoor and four inside the dome at Spooky Nook Sports. Nothing out of the ordinary for the then 62-year-old, who had plenty of energy for some yard work that day. Exhaustion quickly rushed over him as he decided to take a nap…and another…and… still another.

“It was very unlike me,” stated Skalski. “I thought I had Lyme’s Disease.”

In 72 hours’ time, he was in the intensive care unit guzzling 15 liters of oxygen just to catch his breath, with 75 percent of his lungs permanently damaged. The (2) culprits: Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD), where the lung cells can’t process the oxygen effectively. And, Myositis MDA5, a rare illness that is diagnosed in 1 in every 250,000 individuals, which causes muscle inflammation and scars the lung tissue.

“In my case [Myositis MDA] got into my lungs, went off like a solar flare and scarred 75 percent of my lungs. Once you scar tissue you can’t get it back. I learned very quickly that there was no medicine that was going to fix it.”

For now, Mount Kilimanjaro had to wait as Ski had to persevere another mountainous climb to survive. In his case, it was a lung transplant, but it didn’t stop him from remaining optimistic of his aspirations.

The next two months were harrowing for Ski. After initially being rejected for a transplant by The Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, he was ultimately accepted into the transplantation program at Temple University Hospital. Although struggling to breath, he never lost sight of making his dream a reality one day.

As fate would have it, a matching donor was found in the waning days of July. A 26-year-old by the name of John Tuzak had passed unexpectedly hours earlier, and whose lung was a perfect match for Ski. On August 1, after approximately seven hours of surgery, Ski woke up breathing better than he had for almost two decades.

With his lung troubles behind him, Ski began the long uphill climb to recovery over the next three years. Unfortunately, additional complications from the transplant led to both a stomach surgery and a fluttering heart. On the outside, Ski mentioned at times he felt he was running a marathon by just sitting in a chair, sometimes lasting a few minutes, other times many hours. Day-by-day, the climb back up-hill to being ready for Africa seemed to get steeper.

Yet the umpire/life insurance salesman never wavered from being optimistic.

“Each time something came up, I thought of it as, ‘Well, what do we have to do to fix this?’,” Ski recalled. “I thought I was extra healthy; I mean I was still officiating regularly.”

Then came a spot on his head – first the size of a pencil eraser, soon a nickel, then a quarter before it raised in height. It was squamous cell cancer, brought on from the many medications that were helping him recover, but unfortunately suppressing his immune system. In turn, it was another major setback as a seven-stage surgery cleared away the spread.

Ski had gone through hell and back from 2017 to 2020. Step-by-step he fought back into shape and recovered. He started small, hiking up to five days a week around the trails in Lancaster. Before long, he upped the ante by trekking the "fourteeners" of the Rocky Mountains. Slowly but surely, he felt back to square one years removed from his initial goal to be wheels up to Africa.

“In 2017, I was going to retire for the first time and go climb,” said Ski. “It was a strong desire for me to do this. I had never seriously hiked before. We conducted some pre-training last August in Aspen, Colorado and climbed over 14,000 feet just to experience the altitude.”

His ambition to climb the tallest mountain on the continent was not without warranted concern from family members, including his wife and daughter. After all, it wasn’t just the physicality for Ski to worry about, it was also the elements and thinning air which have been more than enough to turn away countless others hoping to surmount Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet.

“I remember back in April or May, my daughter was visiting and we were talking about how people die on this mountain every day. In any given year thirty to thirty-five thousand people climb [Kilimanjaro]…thirty-five to forty percent don’t make it to the top. During the ascent, climbers will lose fifty percent oxygen from where they started at the base.”

Yet, Ski knew what he was getting into and accepted all the associated risks. He was fueled by faith and family, both of which would accompany him on the trek to Mount Kilimanjaro.

He also had a promise to keep to his donor, John. After staying in touch with his family since the transplant, they all feel like an extended family. Ski wanted to pay tribute to the man who saved his life by pinning a personal possession at the top of the mountain. One phone call from John’s mother, Jean, immediately changed why he wanted to climb.

Ski was floored when the mother of his donor asked him to take some of John’s ashes to spread on the summit. Skalski holding the ashes of his donor on the Kilimanjaro hike

“I couldn’t talk for a minute,” said Ski, as his eyes began to water in recollection. “I said, ‘I have to put the phone down, Jean’. I picked it back up, I still couldn’t talk. I did that three times. It changed the reason I was climbing in a millisecond. In that time, the three or four reasons I wanted to climb went right out the window. Carrying her son’s ashes to the peak became most important.”

Skalski and Alaina’s journey began on October 9, 2020 and ended seven days later. During the length of the trek, he noticed he could not maintain his oxygen levels for long, and as the altitude increased, he watched his pulsox dip from the high 90s all the way down to 56 at one point. He could manage only a couple hundred feet per hour as he sat to rest, breathe and bring the numbers back up.

At 16,444, roughly 3,000 feet from the top, Ski rested again as he saw Alaina speak with their guides.

“They let my daughter do the talking because they knew I’d listen to her,” he laughed. “She said that I should head back down to base camp, but I already knew deep inside, I couldn’t make it to the top.” “Uhuru Peak would allude me.”

He then took out a bottle containing John’s ashes and spread half of them into the thin air. “I climbed the best I could, for as long as I could,” Ski said. "To go any further would mean risking my life."

However, both he and Alaina had made a pact: Once they made it to Kibo Hut (base camp), if one of them couldn’t make it, the other would continue to the top for both of them. In the middle of the night, Alaina spent the next nine and a half hours heading toward the peak, fueled by her father’s wishes. What was left of John’s remains were triumphantly released into the wind.

She returned to camp just three hours later, and as Ski sharply recalls, smiling from ear-to-ear, arms posed like that of the iconic Rocky moment. His 10-year goal was achieved, together with his daughter’s unwavering strength.

“Either of us couldn’t have done it without the other,” added Ski.

Skalski and daughter Alaina at Kibo HutIn the months following their monumental achievement, Ski remains an active umpire, but also has new ambition in life thanks to what transpired over the past several years. He has since been able to share his journey to groups of people online and in-person through United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Eventually he hopes to expand around the country after retiring for the fourth time to speak about the importance of being an organ donor.

"As Popeye used to say, iI yam what I yami, but donating is more important,” said Ski. “If I can convince one person to donate and save ten other people’s lives, then I am doing the job I am supposed to do. That’s why I am going to be a national speaker. I know I can convince 10,000. Then, I would have accomplished something after this horrific experience. I don’t look at it as a bad thing, more like, just something that happened to me.”

Like everything prior, nothing seems to stop Ski or dampen his enthusiasm. After all, he is already down-hill from conquering his own mountain, what lies on the horizon is guiding others to do the same.

“I don’t know what your personal mountain is. It could be starting a new business, playing tennis again, visiting the grand kids, whatever. I tell people that whatever it is, you can get back up on that horse, brush yourself off and take care of it.”

Everything counts!

Even the air I breathe.