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Time Off with: Jennifer Breakey

The SICU’s Jennifer Breakey, atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa.
High above the clouds, the air thin in her lungs, she willed her legs to keep going. They responded by wobbling like Jell-O. Jennifer Breakey focused instead on her breathing, trying to ignore the nauseating effects of the altitude.

Breakey, a nurse in the surgical ICU, never once questioned the whim that propelled her to this six-day trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. She was conquering a new continent with a close friend and forming tight bonds with the international mix of people traveling with them. Her nursing skills were in demand whenever anyone suffered from altitude sickness. And the Machame route, which winds through lush rain forests and sparse alpine-Saharan landscapes before peaking at the highest point in Africa, was breathtaking.

By now, the fifth day, the group had logged nearly 30 climbing hours. The guide instructed them to break camp early, around noon. They were to sleep through the sunlight, then start their final ascent to the summit at 11 p.m. That way, they’d reach Uhuru Peak, towering 19,340 feet above sea level, at dawn.

When they awoke to yet another meal of eggs, chicken and cream of “whatever” soup, it was dark and bone-chillingly cold. Donning head lamps and layers of Gortex and fleece, Breakey and her fellow hikers continued their journey, watching other trekkers’ rows of lights snake along in the distance.

Hours later, they reached the summit. The physical pain and the icy winds receded. And eclipsing it all was the feeling of deep satisfaction. “The only thought in my mind,” says Breakey, “was, Did I really just do that?”

Before Breakey joined the surgical ICU, she had toyed with other options as she mapped out a nursing career. “I went into nursing with an interest in tackling HIV,” she says. The thought haunted her as she left Mt. Kilimanjaro behind.

Then, before heading back to Baltimore, she and her traveling partner savored a final taste of Africa—chunks of crocodile, zebra, ostrich and gazelle piled high on swords—at Carnivore, the all-you-can-eat restaurant in Nairobi touted by safari adventurers. There, Breakey considered the future. “Perhaps I’ll be back in Africa someday—this time as a nurse.”

—Lindsay Roylance



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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