Growing up Mona Patel knew only that her future would involve homemaking and possibly a loveless marriage— two not unlikely products of the arranged marriage that her parents told her she would have. But when a drunk driver hit Patel as she was crossing the street at age 17, the course of her life took an unexpected turn.
Today, Patel, who eventually had her right leg amputated below the knee, is the founder of an organization for amputees like herself, works as a social worker for the patient population, and has led eight other amputees— all men— up and back down Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last year.
“I truly did not see myself here,” 43-year-old Patel, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her two daughters, told FoxNews.com. “I know that I’m here because my accident was a platform that I was fortunately able to use for good— for myself and my community.”
‘It’s just become another family’
When she was 16 Patel enrolled in college courses at California Polytheistic University in Pomona, Calif., to help increase the chances of her future spouse and parents-in-law allowing her to have a career outside of the home. At the time of her accident, she had been talking to the son of her mother’s longtime family friend, and the two planned to marry. However, the necessary foot amputation caused the man’s parents to change their minds about the marriage, as she had become an amputee.
“It was probably one of the hardest things that I’d gone through in my entire life,” she said.
The two married in 1995 despite his parents’ disapproval, and it wasn’t until seven years after she had her accident— a timeframe that included twenty surgeries and the below-the-knee amputation— that her in-laws finally came around as she became involved in community work. In 1997, Patel saw a void for amputee resources in San Antonio, where she was getting a master’s degree in social work, and started a support group through the Amputee Coalition.
“I’ve always wanted to go into some field of helping people,” said Patel, who also studied behavioral science at Cal Poly, and earned another master’s degree in psychology at Pepperdine University.
Her marriage ended after 15 years, but Patel came to dedicate more of her life to helping others with limb differences. She began working for MK Prosthetics in 2005 and said she helped develop its holistic approach. At the company, Patel helped spearhead legislative efforts to help improve insurance coverage of prosthetics by meeting with legislators, attending hearings and testifying in front of committees.
“Thousands of Texas amputees now have better insurance coverage— thanks to all the people who helped me and believed in my leadership,” Patel said.
In 2011, the Hanger Clinic would acquire MK Prosthetics, and Patel became the sole social worker for the prosthetics and orthotics company, which has more than 750 clinics nationwide.
In August 2014, Patel’s organization, the San Antonio Amputee Foundation, earned 501©(3), or nonprofit, status after about two decades of informal operation at Patel’s charge. The nonprofit helps connect amputees to local resources, like prosthetics, and provides needs-based financial assistance for home and car modifications. But the foundation’s biggest tenet remains its support group, which about 30 to 50 people attend each month.
“[The support group] is very, very diverse in terms of ages, levels of amputation, circumstances, causes of amputations and stages of where they are in their recovery process,” Patel said. “We celebrate each other; it’s just become another family.”
‘For those willing to overcome’
About four years ago on Match.com, Patel met her boyfriend, George Jahant, whom Patel credits with encouraging her to seek out and tackle new physical challenges.
Jahant worked for 31 years in the SWAT unit of the San Antonio Police Department and inspired her to complete a 50-hour Navy SEAL training regimen, SEALFIT, that Patel said “transformed my body.”
“When that was over, he asked me, ‘What’s your next goal?’” Patel recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s tackle Kilimanjaro.’”
Before Patel would take on all 19,341 feet of Mt. Kilimanjaro— the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world— Jahant wanted to see how she would fare with less elevation. He suggested Machu Picchu, in Peru, which stands at 7,972 feet high and which travelers can access by hiking the Inca Trail. In June 2013, they climbed the mountain in four days.
“As soon as George [and] I came back from doing the Inca Trail is when my mind started shifting from Kilimanjaro being just a personal goal to including other amputees,” she said.
After securing a medical crew of four people, Patel began recruiting fellow amputees to hike Kilimanjaro with her, prioritizing individuals’ personalities to create a harmonious team. She trained for the climb in late 2014 with the eight amputees whom she would lead. They called themselves the Cloud Walkers.
“Our motto was, ‘For those willing to overcome, we will show the world you can walk among the clouds,’” Patel said.
The amputees were Kevin Robinson, who had a below-the-knee leg amputation after a softball injury; Johnny Martinez, who got into a motor vehicle accident and had a below-the-knee amputation; Patrick Hayes, who fell off a roof and had a below-the-knee amputation; Ian Warshak, who had his fingers amputated and his legs below the knee due to sepsis; Scott Wilson, whose dominant arm was amputated after a work injury; Justin Pfaff, a prosthetist at the Hanger Clinic who is missing the skin grafts on his feet and, all of the digits on his right hand due to frost bite; George Osgood, who had an above-the-knee amputation due to cancer, and Cory Torres, who also had an amputation at the hip due to cancer.
Torres, who did the whole hike on crutches with custom carbon-fiber shocks from Canada, “inspired masses on that mountain,” Patel said.
For a year leading up to the December 2015 hike, Patel helped outfit the men with proper gear from local retailers, and ensured her group was properly vaccinated and given medication prior to departing. She also fundraised, primarily with sponsors, to cover trip expenses. A $25,000 donation from San Antonio-based James Avery jewelers helped cover trip funds for a three-man film crew that would document the Cloud Walkers’ trek. The group is fundraising and looking for a distributor to turn the footage into a documentary.
To prepare the group physically, Patel organized a monthly mandatory hike, including altitude training in New Mexico.
“Oh boy, if they didn't have a good enough reason for not making it, they'd deal with my wrath,” Patel said. “I was serious about getting them there and back as safely as is possible.”
Osgood, who survived treatment for the osteosarcoma he was diagnosed with at age 23, hiked Kilimanjaro with a prosthetic for his left leg, which was amputated above the knee. Now 47 and a civil engineer based in Corpus Christi, Texas, he said the biggest challenge during the climb— as was the case for many of the amputees— was descending the mountain.
“If you descend [with a regular leg], your calf breaks in, but with a mechanical leg, it resists,” Osgood told FoxNews.com, “so I was doing more with my [right] leg and doing more with my poles. There were a couple of us on the way down that felt like we were skiing.”
Skin breakdown from prosthetic use was one of the biggest medical concerns for Pfaff, the prosthetist on the medical team and an amputee.
Pfaff, 30, recalled on day No. 4 of 8 for the hike, Patel developed a painful blister on her limb and had to be piggybacked down the mountain.
“As you’re climbing and really putting a lot of pressure on your limbs … you push fluid out of the limb and then the socket is more loose than it was before because the limb has gotten smaller is size,” Pfaff said. When Patel added socks to make up for the lost space between her leg and the prosthetic, she added one too many socks too early, creating a blister, Pfaff said.
Patel said the biggest challenge as a team was summit day, when The Cloud Walkers had to get through 20 to 24 hours of straight hiking in 30 mph winds and temperatures below freezing.
“Without each other’s strength, there was no way all of us could get up there,” Patel said.
Pfaff said bonding over the year prior to the climb and Patel’s leadership helped the team endure.
“[Patel] did a great job,” Pfaff said. “We were very close ahead of time because we’d spent so much time training over the last year … we all just kind of fed off one another, and she was the pinnacle of that. She was the one at the front to make sure everybody was in the right mindset, giving one another motivation.”
‘They just know she’s tough’
Pfaff, who manages Patel at the Hanger Clinic, described her approach to social work as “amazing.”
“When she’s done speaking with [patients] the first time, they’ll leave the room smiling with a new optimistic outlook on life,” Pfaff said, “which in turn makes my job so much easier because I can provide patients with a good-fitting prosthesis, and they have a good attitude and in turn they end up meeting their potential.”
Osgood said he probably wouldn’t have hiked Kilimanjaro if not for Patel and the Cloud Walkers.
“I think there’s something in [Patel] personally that says, ‘Hey, I need to show the world that amputeeism is not a disability whatsoever. She’s got something driving her— showing what can be done— and I was lucky to just be part of it.”
Jahant, Patel’s boyfriend, said she takes advantage of being challenged mentally and physically, a reality that’s evidenced not only by pursuits like Kilimanjaro but also with managing her nonprofit, working her full-time job with the Hanger Clinic, and raising her two daughters.
He said he wasn’t surprised at all that she could lead more than a dozen men up Kilimanjaro and back.
“It’s funny because when they look at her, they just know she’s tough, and she almost has a different demeanor with them about, ‘No whining, let’s go!’” Jahant told FoxNews.com. “But she also has this very nurturing side that when the wires get crossed and stuff, they know she loves them and she’s pulling for them.”
One moment she exhibited this side, he said, was when one of the climbers, Patrick, got altitude sickness and needed to be carried down the mountain to be medically evacuated.
Arianna Patel, 11, and Anaya Patel, 13, Mona’s daughters, both used the words “kind,” “compassionate,” “loving” and “strong” to describe their mother.
“Just by watching her, a single mother with one leg, you become inspired,” Anaya Patel told FoxNews.com. “Many single moms have trouble just as it is, but she not only has a job and runs a foundation, but is also an amputee. Not only that, but I’ve seen her do some amazing things as an amputee.”
“I was not surprised at all that she could hike Mt. Kilimanjaro and lead a group of eight men up the mountain,” she said. “I have grown up watching her do so many amazing things, and this was just one.”
As for the future, Patel said her daughters will remain her biggest source of inspiration.
“I know they’re always watching me,” Patel said. “I want to give them the tools to just be able to handle whatever life throws at them and just be humble. I can only do that by showing them— by being a good role model, and modeling nothing but good things.”