More Than A Summit Blog

Peaks of Life Origins

March 15th, 2018

Many of us climb for somewhat selfish reasons: to fill a void, connect with nature, feel free, or challenge ourselves physically & mentally. We feel humbled by the mountains and their beauty, especially in the Pacific Northwest where Mount Rainier mysteriously waxes and wanes from the Seattle city horizon. The mountains that dot our horizon tempt us with spectacular views, new heights, and the chance to prove that we can overcome the impossible.

This is the fuel behind the Peaks of Life objective: the desire—the need—to climb and explore the peaks of our nation and world at large. But how did the often-times selfish need to climb turn into a philanthropic, non-profit organization and guild with Seattle Children’s Hospital?

Photo Credit: Ben Stone

Well, it’s not the most likely story, but it sure is fun! I guarantee it will involve a sailing trip around the Pacific, Craigslist futons, and propeller hats. Curious? Not surprised—I know I was itching to learn more! Getting to know Forrest Barker as a close friend has been an adventure in itself. On any given weekend, he can be found skiing, ice climbing, or running up and down Mt. Rainier… probably with a propeller hat on his head. I have never really been drawn to ‘normal’ people (what’s normal, anyways?), but rather prefer to be surrounded by unique and enthusiastic people. Forrest is this kind of person… to an infinite amount, and it’s awesome.

This man has the climbing history to give him credit amongst accomplished mountaineers, and the medical knowledge to be respected by peer groups such as Seattle Mountain Rescue, Washington Hikers and Climbers, and Remote Medical International. He is a man with passion and enthusiasm that often can’t be matched, and a sense of humor and professionalism that intersect at a perfect coordinate.

Yet, Forrest wouldn’t want his accomplishments in the mountains or his career to define him. He wouldn’t boast about his second earliest ascent of Denali’s Cassin Ridge in April 2017 (Google it!), or the fact that he climbed Rainier seven times in the summer of 2017 (sometimes in a one-day push). Rather, Forrest is most animated when he starts talking about Peaks of Life – the “baby” he’s been nurturing since 2010. Because of his passion for Peaks of Life, it wasn’t hard to tempt Forrest to sit down and talk about where it all began. However, a 72-ounce steak and bottle of wine sure did help with pinning down Forrest amidst his busy and dynamic life…

Forrest once described how mountaineering became truly fulfilling in a friend’s blog entry featuring his rationale behind the “punishing, taxing, painful, exhausting” suffering associated with climbing. He wrote:

For a long time climbing was just fun. It wasn’t until I made climbing about something more than myself that it truly became fulfilling. 

Where does fulfillment come from? Forrest believes it comes from the combination of pride and compassion, where pride is the product of being pushed far outside our comfort zone:

I derive [pride] from prevailing through a fight so hard, that it makes me bleed, cry, get scared, want to quit, and almost fail. Pride stands on the foundation of gratitude. This is the appreciation of having the opportunity to fight and the appreciation of being able to fight. 

Compassion, though, is the base of all of it, and allows us to empathize for others. It is through pride and compassion that fulfillment can truly be felt – and this is what it’s like to climb with Peaks of Life. This is our “why.” (link to uncompensated care blog)

All right, I know what those of you who are familiar with our President and Founder are thinking…

So, in effort to best represent the man with the vision, let’s get down to funny business and dig deeper into the foundation of Peaks of Life.

Forrest wears many hats. Literally and figuratively. Like, he has a hat for any and every occasion: pirate hats, sombreros, straw hats, fancy hats, beanies... you name it, I guarantee Forrest and his girlfriend, Brooke, have a hat for it in their closet. And just to give you fair warning: if you show up at their apartment, you’ll likely be obligated to wear one. (Did I mention the mini hats? Some of us really, really appreciate the mini hats).

But then there’s the other hats he wears: balloon artist, mountain rescue volunteer, wine connoisseur (specifically of the Cotes-Du-Rhone Villages), steak griller (did I mention the supposed 72-ounce steak yet?), Edgar Allen Poe enthusiast, coffee drinker, oversleeper master of “carpe diem,” and skilled climber. Forrest is in every sense a dreamer, and his energy after sleeping minimal hours will never cease to amaze me. He’s a true intellect, and therefore, a bit wacky. Forrest is just Forrest, and people love and appreciate him for it as a son, brother, friend, mentor, or climbing partner. As his friend, David, says:

Forrest is someone that defies labels, one of those truly unique people.

Forrest thrives on ideas and imaginative thinking – true acts of genius. But a genius cannot act alone (well, not always). And so, the story begins in 2010 with a trio of college students at University of Puget Sound: Forrest Barker, David Reif, and Aleksandr “Sasha” Romanenko. These three were incredibly studious—studying all hours of the night, grinding hard, and working towards big goals from early on… “pedal to the metal” one might say…

*Record scratch sound effect*

Okay, okay, maybe that’s what we’d expect when we see the Peaks of Life that exists today: a non-profit organization with a formal Annual Gala, and guided climbs throughout the Pacific Northwest. But what’s important to understand here is that this dream came to fruition from the pursuit of true passion. Some people have to work really hard to find what ignites their fire—what makes them strive for more. But this isn’t the case for Forrest—he is always with bursting ideas (a million a day, says David). The trio didn’t create Peaks of Life via Excel spread sheet analyses, but during bonfires trash can fire conversations and beers. Casual, simple, and genuine.

In freshman year at college, Forrest was studying sculpture and international communication. A true artist and creative mind, Forrest can work with any media—from ceramics to paints to balloons. His dorm was just down the hallway from David, who reports Forrest would be up all hours of the night painting, rather than sleeping in the hammock beneath his raised dorm bed. For Forrest’s capstone art project, he stayed up for 48+ hours to build an art gallery out of balloons – hundreds of balloons. On the ceiling of this gallery? A F52 jet plane – made entirely out of various black and gray balloons. He even had a giant Super Mario on a motorcycle inside. Yes, all made out of balloons. A true Renaissance man, you may say.

Beyond the arts, Forrest and his compadres had a serious itch for climbing. Later in college, Forrest and Sasha shared a house with the most epic man-cave setup. The basement floor was layered in futons and cushions purchased on Craigslist as crash pads for the climbing holds and hangboards that filled the walls, door frames, and ceiling. In the backyard sat vintage bicycles beside a full woodshop. These guys clearly shared a passion for climbing, and dreamed of making money by climbing someday…

In September 2010, Forrest decided to get an EMT license as a preemptive step to safety in the mountains. Soon after, he was offered the chance of a lifetime: to join Captain Denny Morgan in an 8-month sailing trip across the Pacific Ocean! Forrest took a break from studies at Puget Sound, and entered a life of solitude on the sea, embracing a vastly different schedule than at college.

To Forrest, this was a pivotal trip. Beforehand, Forrest’s confesses, “I didn’t have much respect for rules and regulations, and did whatever I felt was in my own best interest… or more fun.” This all started to change aboard the ship, where he beheld his “Mistress Kindle” most nights (reading, reading, and reading), and perfected the whistling songs of birds across the Pacific. While sailing from the Martial Islands to the Philippines, Forrest realized it was time to adjust his sails back in the United States. Once returning from the adventure of a lifetime, Forrest basically restarted his college education. He completely switched gears and decided to pursue an education in medicine. At Bellevue Community College, he spent a year taking foundational courses – Biology 101, Chemistry 101, Physics, Anatomy – with full immersion in the sciences. After a year, though, Forrest started to feel restless. He says,

I wanted to be impactful rather than just a bookworm.

In early 2012, as a junior in college, Forrest recognized he couldn’t yet pursue a career in medicine, but wanted to make his own path. This is where the nightly bonfires and beers come in, alongside constant conversations with David and Sasha. David compared it to a nightly “jam session.” In 2012, Obama had been reelected for his second term, and Obamacare was coming into fruition. The media spoke of the pros and cons of universal healthcare, but Forrest saw a gap: What about special populations like pediatrics? Children are completely dependent on thir caregivers for healthcare, so they didn’t have any control over how these changes would affect them. Forrest described these kids as rubber ducks in the ocean, drifting to wherever the weather and tide may push them.

Forrest wanted to play a role in shifting the tide, carrying the children safely to shore, and so the real thinking began. The three climbers tossed around various ideas for a non-profit organization to benefit pediatric healthcare. The idea of helping children brought Forrest to research Seattle Children’s Hospital, and he eventually found the Guild Association. That was it! The crew knew they’d come closer to an answer, and would have to develop the means to raise money for uncompensated healthcare so all children could be treated regardless of their ability to pay. The seemingly hopeless dream to make money via climbing kept resurfacing while contemplating their burning question:

How can we benefit pediatric healthcare by playing in the mountains?

In 2012, they were in a little over their heads with establishing the non-profit with Seattle Children’s—filling out paperwork and applying for tax exemption was rather complicated! Now that Peaks of Life was official, the team had to decide what action they’d take to raise funds. They played with the idea of promoting healthy lifestyles via marathon laps on Mt. Si or educational courses, mountain biking and kayaking, and field days. That year, Forrest and his friends focused on climbing and having fun, all the while anticipating the growth and evolution of “Peaks of Life.”

That first official year, Sasha was proactive in designing a logo, and the team put together a celebration for the end of climbing season and Peaks of Life’s first fundraiser: “The Winter Gift.” Then, in 2013, things got a little quieter. The trio tried setting up field days at the Annie Wright school in Tacoma where David was working, but they ran into the issue of insurance. Things kept growing and shifting as David eventually moved to the east coast to pursue a career in nursing, and Sasha headed back to Anchorage.

The Original Peaks of Life Logo!

For the next two years in 2014 and 2015, Forrest and his friends climbed all the major peaks in the PNW and brought the newly designed Peaks of Life banner everywhere he went! These outdoors trips were “outreach oriented” because he didn’t yet have the insurance or legal ability to begin organizing and leading trips. So, he brought the banner when climbing in Squamish, hiking to fire lookouts, and summiting Rainier.

Mt. Hood, 2015

Oregon climbing trip in 2013 with Aleksandr Romanenko

Summit of Denali's West Buttress!

Forrest can have a conversation with anyone, and so it’s no surprise that he got people to pose with the Peaks of Life banner, like the folks from Veterans Expeditions below. I could see it now – Forrest walking up to strangers, telling them about his mission, gathering a real following for his idea. He started realizing this somewhat crazy idea of climbing for uncompensated care was viable! Gauging others’ enthusiasm, Forrest reaffirmed that it was a functional business model and let go of the idea to working with children directly. Instead, Peaks of Life needed to focus on one thing: CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING TRIPS!

Peaks of Life and Veterans Expeditions hanging out at Camp 14, 2015 (Denali)

2015 was a huge year for Peaks of Life, and the first annual gala event was held on October 23 at the end of climbing season. Given Forrest’s previous track record in time management (and effective use of 24 hours in a day), it was awesome to hear how this gala came together last-minute. Forrest sold 50/80 tickets in the last two weeks before the gala, with a huge following from Washington Hikers and Climbers. He said it was a steep learning curve, and used his balloon animal skills to get people’s attention at Pike’s Place, Bellevue Square… anywhere to get people’s attention in order to sell them a gala ticket! Forrest’s family also were crucial advisors in fundraiser event planning. His mother has done full-time fundraising for a number of organizations, and helped to coordinate caterers and silent auction items. In fact, the day of the gala, Forrest met his mother in downtown Seattle to get the auction items from her hotel room. What he didn’t know as he walked into the hotel room, knife in hand to open the boxes in the hotel room, was that secret service agents were on watch! Forrest was interrogated for suspicious activity while wearing his full gala attire, escaping just in time to get the auction items and be on time for the big event!

In 2016, Forrest started finding other people to more seriously follow his mission. Brooke joined the team when she heard about Peaks of Life while working with Forrest in UW’s lab. She became the necessary mastermind behind getting the business model in line, and put the “organization” in non-profit organization. Sponsors began getting more involved as Forrest began practicing his delegation skills. This time, the 2016 Gala (“A Night Above the Clouds, Tour of the Himalaya”) wasn’t planned a mere two weeks in advanced – Brooke and Jane would never allow it!

Connor, Forrest, and Brooke!

It’s inspiring to learn how much growth has happened in the last two years. Now, the September 2018 gala is being planned as early as March (yes, right now)! Our board has grown, and everyone part of the Peaks of Life team has full-time jobs and busy schedules. Nonetheless, we find the time for the organization and make a lot happen because we truly believe in the outcome.

Left to right: Brooke, Jane, and Amber at our 2017 Gala. Brooke and Jane have kept Forrest on some earlier deadlines for gala planning.

Any gathering can fuel our conversations about Peaks of Life’s direction—even a Friday night dinner of steak, vegan eggs (aka eggplant), and coniferous apples (aka pineapples). Oh, and don’t forget Brooke’s delightful desserts—they’re sure to bring any group together. Even on Thanksgiving break during a cabin stay at Crystal Mountain, our team found a way to brainstorm the future of Peaks of Life. When you get a bunch of people together with a common cause, it bands you together in a unique way. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group of friends like this one, and it all started with Forrest’s motivation and passion. Peaks of Life is moving forward like a wild animal that simply can't be tamed.

So, what does the future hold? More money raised during climbs in the Pacific Northwest, and the refinement of a streamlined, stable, sustainable model in order to support our ideas. Perhaps one day we will even begin international climbs, but for now we’ll stick to wearing silly costumes while getting people to climb with us on Friday mornings, summiting peaks, and hosting events to get other people excited about our mission with a truly unique history.

Friday mornings at Vertical World, Seattle.
Top (left to right): Brooke, Kristen, Forrest, Amber, Eve
Bottom: Robert, Garrett

How will we do it?! Together, that’s for sure. Brooke surely will keep Forrest and our entire team on task (how does she find the time?!). We aim to share more on social media with help of our photographer and social media marketing manager, Garrett and Amber. With Robert’s guiding hand, we won’t get too over-zealous in our plans and have a well-executed system in place. Eve will certainly help to keep the ropes in line, and plan for some epic climbs this season. Jane will keep counting all the money we raise… and write some big checks to Seattle Children’s Hospital. And me? I’ll write about it all for you, talk to you at events, and fire you up for all we have in store! We can’t wait to see what the future truly holds for Peaks of Life, because it’s come so far already.

Forrest is one of the hardest working and interesting people I’ve ever known, and we are so lucky for his leadership in Peaks of Life. Some weeks, Forrest works 60+ hours at his full-time job, but Peaks of Life would never be sacrificed. This organization is his lifeline, and his deep, tethered connection between passions. And so, we stand beside our enthusiastic, unique leader for the future of Peaks of Life and pediatric healthcare.

Special Thanks

Thank you, Forrest, for all you’ve done and all you continue to do. You inspire all those you come in contact with. Never lose your enthusiasm for all life has to offer!


Thank you, David, for sharing your side of the story, and Sasha for being a part of this vision from the beginning.


Thank you, to Forrest’s family, for raising a man who believes in philanthropy and the good in helping people.


Here’s to Climbing for More Than a Summit!


The Uncompensated Care Fund

February 15th, 2018


A child’s health should not hinge on a family’s finances. Seattle Children’s was founded on the belief and promise that all children should receive the best quality care regardless of ability to pay. At Seattle Children’s we provide hope, care and cures to help every child live the healthiest and most fulfilling life possible. In 2016, we provided $126 million in uncompensated care to children in Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
          - Seattle Children’s Hospital

The Uncompensated Care Fund provides financial support for families who otherwise cannot pay for medical care, based on family need and the hospital’s resources. This has allowed children to receive ongoing care when insurance no longer pays, participate in drug trials, and maximize quality care while releasing the financial burden on a family unit. The fund receives money from a variety of sources, and is a representation of the philanthropic community in the Pacific Northwest.

Uncompensated Care | Seattle Children's Hospital


In January 1907, Anna Clise joined 23 female friends to establish the first pediatric medical facility in the Pacific Northwest. The death of Anna Clise’s young son from inflammatory rheumatism in 1898 made her aware of the lack of specialized care for children – and inspired her to take action. Her original vision over a century ago still guides Seattle Children’s Hospital today:

To care for children regardless of race, religion, gender or a family’s ability to pay.

Seattle Children’s first opened as the “Children’s Orthopedic Hospital” in 1907 and run by an association of women (mostly mothers) who donated their time. These women paid $10 for annual membership, and an additional $10 to initiate the treasury – all out of their own pockets. In the first year, Children’s Orthopedic Hospital treated 13 children on a ward at Seattle General Hospital for a total cost of $1,000. The Children’s Orthopedic Hospital Association’s Membership Committee then began soliciting charitable contributions to pay for the beds at Seattle General Hospital. By March 1907, 105 citizens purchased a $10 membership. In the summer of 1907, the Guild Committee was formed to support neighborhood fundraising and hold regular meetings on the financial condition of the Hospital Association. The hospital continued to grow and evolve through charitable donations from the Seattle community and beyond.

Though the hospital has changed names a number of times, the idea of philanthropy and community support is still evident over a century after Anna Clise’s dream became a reality. As the largest all-volunteer fundraising network of any hospital in the nation, the Guild Association helps the hospital fulfill its promise to provide world-class health care through fundraising, volunteering and advocacy.

Read more about the history here!

Where do the funds come from?

As Seattle Children’s Hospital continues to expand in square footage, it also grows in the number of children and families it serves. Since its birth, Seattle Children’s has provided millions of dollars in uncompensated care.

In Fiscal Year 20161, the un/undercompensated care fund covered $126,683,000 in medical bills for families who most needed help. Where did this money come from? Generous donors, including:

The beautiful thing is every contribution, no matter how small, is meaningful. In FY 2016, Seattle Children’s received 76,704 gifts under $100.

The Guild Association at Seattle Children’s started in 1907, and it continues to grow today. As of FY 2016, there are 450 guilds and 6,200 volunteer guild members! Each guild is unique to its members’ passions and host events such as wine auctions, golf tournaments… or climbs of Mount Rainier. The passion and dedication of guild members is represented by the fact that Seattle Children’s doesn’t ASK for guilds to form. Rather, people come to Seattle Children’s asking how they can help. Other hospitals have asked how to initiate a similar model, but the Seattle community has taken philanthropy into their own hands, and there’s no equation to the generosity.

Seattle Children’s continues to provide greater amounts in care that was not otherwise paid for thanks to these generous donations. In Fiscal Year 2017, the uncompensated care fund increased its coverage to $164 million in medical bills. The reason for this increase has not yet been evaluated, but one thing is certain: The need continues to rise.

We must continue to rise as a community to support the need.
Why is this important?

As the President of Peaks of Life, Forrest Barker, states:

All children deserve the world's best healthcare just by virtue of being children. Most places, this is an idealistic view that isn't actually achievable, but not in Seattle. The Uncompensated Care Fund allows Seattle Children’s Hospital to make what is a dream elsewhere a reality by providing the very best quality of care to all children regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

As healthcare goes through multiple reforms and health insurance remains a challenge for many families, children are in need of extra support. With financial assistance at Seattle Children’s, a child may qualify to have medical bills partially or fully paid for. Financial assistance for medically necessary services is based on family income and hospital resources and is provided to children under age 21 whose primary residence is in Washington, Alaska, Montana or Idaho (with some exceptions).

There are many ways for a family to receive financial assistance at Seattle Children’s, and the process of applying is quite simple. Rather than be overwhelmed with cumbersome paperwork, families may apply online or download this simple form. Typically, financial assistance lasts for 6 months, but a family can re-apply at any time. Additionally, families may receive a call to alert them they are eligible for financial assistance without applying. The qualifications for financial assistance can be found in this policy, but a financial counselor is always available to answer family questions and guide them on the right path.

The topic of healthcare and insurance coverage is often the cause of financial stress. Deductibles are getting higher. Families and individuals must pay a higher amount for their services before insurance begins to pay. Additionally, copayments and coinsurance costs are often associated with medical care. After paying all deductibles, some insurances require individuals to share the cost of services in a certain dollar amount (copayment) or percentage of the service provided (coinsurance). This amount depends on what insurances the individual has (sometimes two insurances, (a primary and secondary), how much the doctor charges, whether the doctor is in the insurance’s network, the type of facility, and many other factors.

It Starts with YES

You may have seen billboards dotting the highways stating It Starts with YES, but what do they mean? Seattle Children’s started the It Starts With YES campaign in November 2017 with the bold goal to raise $1 billion in order to:

Say yes to every child and family, including those who will never walk through our doors and those for whom we are their only hope.

We live in an unbelievable era of scientific breakthrough, and Seattle Children’s Hospital aims to be ahead of the curve with drug trials, research to find cures, and quality care. Seattle Children’s shares the promise to deliver care to every family in need and transform treatment and cures from some of the most devastating childhood diseases. As a community, we can act to help Seattle Children’s deliver on their biggest ideas – life changing ideas that point toward an amazing future. The campaign is focusing on contributing money to four areas in order to advance in providing hope, care, and cures.

By contributing to Seattle Children’s, we can strive to answer “yes” to the following questions:

Uncompensated Care: Can we care for every child who needs us today, tomorrow, always?
Cancer Research: Can we use her own immune system to cure her cancer?
Odessa Brown Clinic: Can we give them a fighting chance to stay healthy?
Neurology: Can we find better ways to treat her neurological disorder?

Seattle Children’s asks us to join together as a community NOW in order to transform children’s healthcare for generations to come:

At a time when many hospitals are cutting back, we ask you to join us as we seize the moment and do more.
We don’t believe today’s volatile healthcare landscape is a reason to scale back services at the expense of children who need us now more than ever.

Big News!

This week, Seattle Children’s Hospital received a $60 million legacy gift towards uncompensated care! This is the second largest gift in the hospital’s history, and largest gift received as part of the $1 billion It Starts With YES campaign. The gift comes from the estate of Bruce Leven – a Mercer Island resident who passed away in September 2017. This legacy gift will support uncompensated care through the creation of the Bruce Leven Endowed Fund.

“We are deeply grateful for Bruce’s incredible generosity in leaving behind a lasting legacy that will help us say yes to hope, care and cure for every child in our region… Kids need us now more than ever. It is gifts like these from our community that will ensure we will be able to meet these growing needs now and into the future.”
         - Dr. Jeff Sperring, Seattle Children’s Chief Executive Officer

Peaks of Life Takes Action

As an all volunteer non-profit organization and guild with Seattle Children’s, we’ve taken the pledge to raise money for the uncompensated care fund by climbing peaks throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.4 Additionally, we host a gala every fall to allow our sponsors, climbers, volunteers, and community to come together for an evening of dinner and special events. Our gala is a way to say “Thank You” to our generous community and further support the patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

It’s important to note that all guilds choose where their fundraising efforts will be focused. About 50% of the guilds have chosen to donate towards the uncompensated care fund, while others choose research studies, clinics, or other areas to sponsor. We’ve consistently donated to the uncompensated care fund because we believe financial status should not impact the quality of care children receive.

The uncompensated care fund is a way for the community to support itself, specifically by helping the families who are faced with the unimaginable. It is a way for Seattle Children's to provide care to every child who needs it by reducing the importance of money and bureaucracy.
         - Brooke Jarvie, Managing Director, Peaks of Life

This is our passion, and we won’t stop climbing until Seattle Children’s Hospital can answer “YES” to every child who walks through its doors…

Notes and Resources:
1 Seattle Children’s Hospital Fiscal Year runs from October 1 to September 30. The numbers reported in this post are related to Fiscal Year 16. A detailed report for Fiscal Year 17 is still underway.
2 Please download the Seattle Children’s 2016-2017 Community Benefit Report here.
3 Read the full Fiscal Year 2016 statistics here.
**Please note all the above information was collected from Seattle Children’s Hospital’s documents, website, and other resources. The information reported is available to the public in a variety of sources, and often directly quoted to avoid miscommunication of the information. If you find any discrepancies in the information presented in this post, please contact us with your concerns. Thank you!
4 Stay tuned for our March 2018 blog post, which will highlight the story of why and how Forrest Barker started Peaks of Life.

Here's to Climbing For More Than A Summit!


Climbing to Remission: Marissela’s Story

January 17th, 2018

Hope comes to us in many ways. For many children and families receiving care at Seattle Children’s Hospital, hope is in the hands of dedicated medical professionals. Yet, the staff members at Seattle Children’s don’t hold onto this hope. Rather, they selflessly spread it to the very people they serve—the children and their families. They collaborate with the patients and families, allowing each individual to be heard, and each family to play a role in their child’s care. Hope isn’t just a value, it’s a promise.

Sometimes, we search for hope in our greatest moments of despair—seeking answers to the unknowns that haunt us. We wonder when we will finally find an answer and a breath of fresh air. Marissela’s mother felt this haunting when her daughter was just over a year. She began seeking answers, trusting her intuition as a mother. What came next was 845 days of more unknowns and a whirlwind of treatments, clinic visits, hospital stays, rounds of chemotherapy, and changes in her daughter. Seattle Children’s gave Marissela and her family hope, but the strength to make it to the end of the battle came from within.

Peaks of Life first heard from Marissela’s mother, Kayla, at the Annual Gala in 2017. Now, Kayla shares more of her family’s journey with Marissela at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

This Marissela’s story. This is hope. This is strength.

In June of 2014, we welcomed our second daughter into this world. Marissela Grace: 5 pounds, 14 ounces, perfect in every way. I hardly slept; I just stared at her tiny little fingers and sweet little face. Even as a baby, I just knew she was an old soul. We used to laugh because she would fall asleep in a second if we turned on old school rap music. She just had this way of looking into you, not at you. Our family was happy, healthy and invincible.

Just after Marissela’s first birthday, she started to regress developmentally. I knew something was wrong with her—I just didn’t know what. I would take her to the doctor all the time for small changes: she was eating less, bruising without injuring herself, sleeping longer and more often. Individually, none of these symptoms are a big deal. Collectively, they can be indicative of a more serious, underlying medical condition. I was told, “All of these symptoms are normal for Marissela’s age, so relax and stay off WebMD, Mom!” I often left her pediatrician’s office feeling very patronized.

That August, when Marissela was 14 months old, she came down with a high fever that just wouldn’t go away. It lasted a total of 11 days. During that time, I brought her to her pediatrician’s office almost every other day. I also took her to the ER at Providence in Everett. I shared the subtle symptoms I noticed and begged the doctors to do bloodwork for more information. They told me she had a virus and sent us on our way every time. I still hold a lot of guilt in my heart for not trusting my gut and pushing harder for answers.

On day 11, we brought her to the emergency department at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Marissela was rushed right back to a room. Once again, I told them about her symptoms and persistent fever. They really listed to every detail I shared with them. Within minutes, they had an IV started and had blood samples sent off to their on-site lab.

What Seattle Children’s did differently than every other doctor was very simple—they listened to our concerns and allowed us to participate in Marissela’s care.

Although Marissela’s symptoms were seemingly normal, they trusted our gut instinct as parents when we told them something was very wrong. They dug deeper, they looked for answers, they were willing to test further.

We couldn’t have been waiting for more than an hour before three doctors came through the door. They told us she had Very High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The only way I can describe that moment is… as a scene from a movie. The doctors were talking but I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. I just dropped and held onto Marissela because the entire room was spinning. I started screaming, “No, she doesn’t have cancer! That’s cancer, right? I don’t want my baby to die!” I could feel my heart in the pit of my stomach. The only thing I could hear the doctors say was, “This is one of the best pediatric oncology hospitals in the world—Marissela is safe now.”

I later found out that, at diagnosis, 95% of Marissela's White Blood Cells were Leukemia cells. Her blood counts were so low, it was a surprise Marissela was still conscious, as it appeared she had a serious blood infection.* (See note below). The first of nine rounds of chemo started the moment Marissela was diagnosed. Nurses rushed in minutes behind the doctors with antibiotics, chemo, and bags of blood products.

We thought that was THE worst day of our lives, but there were 845 more to follow.

Chemotherapy was worse than cancer. Sometimes, she was in so much pain that she would scream out, “Help me!” The nausea and vomiting never seemed to end. It was hard for me to give her baths at night. You could just see every bone in her body; she was so skinny. Tears would roll down my face and I would have to smile at the same time. I didn’t want her to think she did something wrong.

(Above) At the Peaks of Life Gala, Kayla holds up a 42-foot long string of beads to represent all the treatments Marissela has been through. Forty-two feet. That’s about the height of a Brachiosaurus, the Hollywood sign, or (as Kayla notes) seven men (about 6 feet tall) laying in a line.

Beads of Courage & Child Life at Seattle Children's Hospital helped Marissela own her story through a record of beads. Every single bead given to her represented a treatment milestone. Every bead represented her strength and fire for life. She earned a total of 1,386 of them! The beads are less than one centimeter; strung together, they measure 42 feet long.

Marissela was supposed to go into remission after the first month of chemo, but her cancer was so aggressive it took around four months. On December 23rd of 2015, we finally received the news we were waiting for: there was no evidence of cancer in her blood or bone marrow! She was in complete remission!

As hard as her treatment was, I can say that Seattle Children’s made sure we had everything we needed and that our family was able to stay together. They kept her as comfortable as possible, allowed us to stay in her room with her and explained everything to her (and us) in a way that was easy to understand. We felt included in her care every step of the way. I’m sure there were days that I would ask the same question multiple times. They went over every question we ever had in great length. Her team of about 20 doctors, nurses, and therapists was extraordinary. They saved our daughter’s life.

Marissela's treatment has felt a lot like climbing.

There have been moments with so much ahead of us that we felt defeated. Moments where we were close to the end of treatment, and looked back at where we've been in disbelief. Now, after 845 days, Marissela has finished treatment we are looking back, wondering how can we help other families still on this journey make it to the end.

Marissela has a lot of catching up to do developmentally. For so much of her life, her energy has been spent on fighting this beast. Day by day, her life is getting back to normal though. Some of the things she loves: tacos, princess dresses, playing pretend kitchen, stickers, coloring, and (best for last) old school rap music. I used to pray that I would just be able to see her walk and now she is running and climbing on everything! She is incredible!

I don’t know what the future holds for Marissela. We are just starting to learn about some of the long-term damage chemo has done to her body and she is still at very high risk of relapse. What I do know is that Seattle Children’s is a short drive away. That makes us feel safe. It allows us to live normally in the meantime.

Marissela’s mother, Kayla, has shared this story in order to give others hope and insight into how to endure such a challenging fight. Though Marissela’s future is unknown, the unknowns are filled with hope and strength through Marissela's fighting spirit and the local team at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

*More Information: When leukemia cells outnumber the mature white blood cells in the body, patients are in an immunocompromised state and often become septic (blood infection). Additionally, the red blood cell count often times drops quite low, leading to hypoxia (low oxygen), thus patients are prone to losing consciousness. The above information was reported by Marissela's mother, Kayla, with her consent. 

Special thanks to Kayla Orejuela for sharing the photos and Marissela's story. The Peaks of Life team is sending you and your family love and continued strength as Marissela grows.

Hearing patient stories like Marissela's drive us at Peaks of Life to climb higher, reaching new heights in our fundraising goals so all children can access quality care at Seattle Children's. Please stay tuned next month for details on the uncompensated care fund, and why it's important to patients like Marissela.

Here's to Climbing For More Than A Summit!


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About More Than A Summit

Peaks of Life climbs for 'more than a summit.' On our blog, we represent the children and families we serve at Seattle Children's Hospital, while providing valuable information for our dedicated climbers and volunteers!

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