Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, reaching more than 19,000 feet above the plans of Tanzania. It’s is a daunting challenge for any hiker.
Most fail to make the summit. But last year, a San Antonio woman organized a team of 15 to make the journey. Nine of them were amputees, like herself.
"We took nine amputees to Africa in 2015 and we summited in early 2016,” said organizer Mona Patel, who explained that she did it mainly to inspire others. "Our hope was to come back and share a story and testimony to other people that we literally climbed a mountain, but we are here to help you climb any mountain in your own life."
Patel has climbed plenty of mountains in her life, figurative and otherwise. One of her first was a car crash caused by a drunk driver when she was a 17-year-old college student in California.
Doctors amputated her foot immediately, and her leg seven years later, after multiple surgeries. By that time, she had moved to San Antonio and the city had no support group for amputees.
“When I was looking for resources, there were none,” she said. “So I vowed to myself that once I got back on my feet, I would start a support group and fill that void in the community."
She filled a void, and more. Today, Mona Patel is the city's go-to advocate for amputees. She's a part-time social worker with a prosthetic company and her support group is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation helping with in-home modifications for amputees plus education, advocacy, fitness, and more.
In 2008, she led a grassroots lobbying effort to get the Prosthetics Parity Act passed by the Texas State Legislature. It removed special caps and barriers for amputees so that every Texas-based commercial insurance carrier is required to pay for prosthetics.
Patel is always on, trying to help others whenever she can. When we spoke to her, she was answering questions from a fellow amputee and encouraging them to not be afraid to face challenges that will give them power and independence when they’re afraid that they’ve lost it.
Patel will even advocate on a patient’s behalf to help get insurance benefits and the devices required to adapt, in a home, car, or at work.
“Of course you need the medical care, of course you need the guidance and to be put in the right place,” said Dr Jahnavi Manocha, Patel’s friend and collaborator. “But to keep your mind in the right place, that is key. That's what Mona provides."
And Patel provides a lot of her help personally. Her foundation has no office and only one part-time employee. At hospitals all across San Antonio, Patel is hands-on, offering one-on-one encouragement and assistance to connect the amputees with the right physicians and the right resources. And mostly, she provides the motivation.
"I think without Mona Patel, we would be stuck, to put it simply," Dr. Manocha said.
“That's what I instill in them, that we are strong human beings,” Patel said. “We are very resilient, and I'm here to support you for as long as you need me.”
San Antonio will need Mona Patel for many years to come, as an amputee advocate and an example. That's why she's one of the people who make San Antonio great.