Today, October 7th, marks the day my friend Stacey was born 52 years ago. It is also one year and 25 days that she passed away when her transplanted lungs finally could not longer sustain her. Lots of people—including family, friends, the SheClimbs community, and many folks she had inspired over the years—miss her dearly. I know I do.
I first met her in 1999, when my friend Loren brought me to a climbing gym called Twisters in Mountain View, California. This was at a time that Google had only just become incorporated by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergei Brin, but five whole years before the massive their Silicon Valley headquarters was built.
Twisters could not be more of a polar opposite than the Googleplex despite being not much more than a frisbee throw away. It was about the size of a typical garage, by which I mean closer to the dimensions of the original HP Garage and not your modern day McMansion’s. The height of its tallest climbs were 15, maybe 20 feet off the ground. There was a small bouldering room upstairs, but almost everyone hung out in the climbing area. Rock climbing was still very much a fringe sport.
Loren had me start out on a climb rated 5.6. For those who don’t rock climb, those numbers might mean nothing, but let me tell you that every beginning climber I have brought to a climbing gym has been able to climb a 5.6. It’s barely more difficult than climbing a ladder. Well, not me. I could not get more than halfway up and onto the upper section that protruded about a foot out relative to the lower section. I tried five or six times before throwing in the proverbial towel for the night. Afterwards, it was a chore to turn the key in the Porsche 944‘s ignition to drive home. The forearms were that shot.
Stacey was the manager of that gym, and she gave a lot of encouragement to Loren and me whenever she was not instructing a bunch of kids on how to climb. Loren and I continued to climb for a couple years at Twisters, gradually improving to the point where we could do 5.9s and maybe an occasional 5.10. We could not even fathom doing a 5.11, and yet Stacey—who had at least a foot less reach due to being 4’10” (147 cm) tall—was seemingly able to do them with ease.
Despite her diminutive frame, she was an athletic beast. During her youth, she played soccer and did gymnastics. She also became a local climbing celebrity, having started the Bay Area chapter of SheClimbs, an organization that promoted climbing among women.
Moreover, she was someone who relished a challenge. For example, despite not doing all that much cardio training, she registered for the 1999 Tour du Jour bicycle ride, a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis. She rode the 100-kilometer course, but because she pedaled to the start in Redwood City from her home in Mountain View, and then back home after the event, she cycled 100 miles like the rest of us. But on a mountain bike… with a gallon of water… a U-lock… and a backpack.
“I probably should have left some of that extra weight at home,” she cheerfully said afterwards with a laugh. Or words to that effect.
One thing Stacey had was an easy laugh. Usually she started by saying something really insightful or observant, then ended with something ironic or hilarious. Later on when we became better friends, she enjoyed teasing and laughing at me—all in good fun, of course.
She was also very social and hosted a lot of parties. I met various people at various celebrations who are still good friends to this day, including Tori and Alyssa, whom I met at Stacey’s birthday parties of 2000 and 2005, respectively.
It was actually Tori who told me of the diagnosis that would change Stacey’s life forever, in late 2003 or early 2004. I had taken a hiatus from climbing due to training for things like Paris-Brest-Paris and my first Ironman triathlon, but Tori was still involved with SheClimbs. Apparently, Stacey had gone to Yosemite to climb with some others, and was feeling out of breath. A medical doctor on the trip convinced her to get checked out.
She did and the news was not good. She was diagnosed with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare, progressive disease that results in the destruction of the lungs. The only “cure” was a lung transplant. And even then, a lung transplant was only buying time; only half of all lung transplant patients survive past five years. It’s only the miracle of modern medicine that a lung transplant was even an option in the first place.
A year after Stacey got a double lung transplant performed by the Stanford Medical Center, I moved to Colorado. But we remained good friends. Every year when I’d be in California, I’d make a point to visit her. She even came out to Colorado to visit—even though flying on planes at being at altitude was not amenable to breathing with second-hand lungs—and introduced me to the legendary climber, Lynn Hill, in doing so!
She refused to feel down about her circumstances and was determined to make the most of what she had. This included staying in as good shape as possible and competing in the Transplant Games of America. To that end, when I’d be in the Bay Area, she would ask me to run while she rode her bike for cardiovascular training, and also to play badminton. Both activities were great workouts for both of us—especially since I had less skill than her in badminton, which meant I had to run around a whole lot more.
Around 2011 (an amazing seven years post-transplant), she still could chick me in climbing, but in later years she’d have to climb less and less due to the need to use oxygen and the nausea that high exertion could cause. This did not prevent her from doing self-imposed exercise challenges.
For example, she did 2011 pull-ups in 2011, and got me to do them. She kept me accountable (see spreadsheet) and I ended up needing to do 121 pull-ups one day in December and 151 on another. That was actually fun.
Stacey did a similar thing the next year, creating a 2012 in 2012 Facebook group to inspire others to do the same. For herself, she expanded her goals to include weighted pull-ups, push-ups, dips, calf-raises, crunches, squats, and bench presses.
Two-thousand thirteen was when she decided to do something really crazy. This happened after she told a friend that she was going to do 2013 pull-ups in 2013.
“Like 2013 pull-ups in one day?” asked the friend.
That was not what Stacey originally meant. She was going to do 2013 over the course of the whole year like before. But she thought to herself, “Why not?” And then she called me to get me to do them too on New Year’s Day.
I was skeptical this was a good idea, but was intrigued by the challenge. So of course I joined in. How it went was chronicled in this blog post.
“Never again,” I told Stacey the day after we completed the challenge, laughing. “Next year if you decide to do that again, you’re on your own!”
Stacey never did attempt such a feat again, but she continued to set other goals for herself throughout the years. In honor of her, on New Year’s Day in 2014, I decided to do something fairly epic but less crazy and definitely less physical: do 14 lessons of Pimsleur Mandarin. Intense, focused sessions like that have helped me make progress in something in short amounts of time.
Alas, it was maybe a year or two later that Stacey had to start using supplemental oxygen tanks again. Her transplanted lungs—which the doctors had already told her she’d be lucky if they lasted more than five years—were declining. In her final years, the fingertip oximeter she used were reading at levels as if she was living on top of Mount Everest, where the air is only a third as thin as at sea level. She was going to need another lung transplant, she knew, if she was going to survive for many years longer.
So she did the best she could to keep her fitness and weight up enough so that she’d qualify to receive a second transplant. Donor organs, including lungs, are in short supply, so the candidates most likely to survive are given priority on the donation list. It would have helped if there were more donors. This is why I urge people to register to become an organ donor, so their organs are not “wasted” when they pass away and they can give others the gift of life.
Meanwhile, Stacey hung in there for as long as she could, and I’m glad I could visit with her through her final years, particularly during the holidays.
She continued to challenge me through those years. Every time I went to visit her, for example, she’d make me do pull-ups. “You could set the record for number of pull-ups in my apartment,” she said, “at least until Josh does some.” Josh was Stacey’s protege, national speed-climbing champion and American Ninja Warrior.
Sadly, Stacey never did make it to a second transplant despite waiting two-and-a-half years. In early September 2018, I was notified by her closest friends that her health had taken a turn for the worse, that she was off the waiting list for good, and that she was unlikely to hang on longer than “weeks.” She was being treated with Opioids to help control pain at the Stanford Medical Center and being readied to be moved to hospice.
I flew out almost immediately and had a couple of visits with Stacey. The first day the Opioids had knocked her out so completely that I couldn’t wake her while staying by her side for about 20 minutes. But the next day she was more alert. I met up with Stacey’s mom Laura and our good friends Alyssa and Bryan—all of whom have done so much for Stacey over the years—and was able to have one final visit with my dear friend.
It was a little emotional but we were all thankful that we were able to have this opportunity to say goodbye. Most people who pass away more suddenly usually do not get that chance.
Moreover, Laura explained how Stacey had told her earlier that she was completely at peace with her fate and was going to try to enjoy the moment. They were both thankful to her donors and that the pair of lungs lasted 14 years, far more than the expected five.
A few days later, Stacey passed away in hospice—but not before telling her sister that her final week was really “spectacular.” She got to visit with just about all of her loved ones before going.
She left an indelible memory among many. Jerry, her brother-in-law, left this note that summarizes Stacey’s qualities well:
Hi Stacey! You are the best aunt that our girls could have ever had. Through your example, you have taught them many life lessons, including:
first & foremost – optimism;
setting & focusing on goals;
not letting difficulties define who you are;
the beauty of athletic sport;
unbounded love for family;
and love for animals – especially doggies and goats;
how to inspire others by example rather than talk.
Our three daughters are blessed to have you in their lives, and I know they will continue to learn from your example for the rest of their lives.
I am also blessed for the same reasons, plus one more: I cannot imagine ever having a more loving and caring sister-in-law than you.
We love you!
More notes and information about Stacey are on WindSongJournal.com, a website dedicated to Stacey that I intend to maintain (keep online) indefinitely. It includes several of her own musings from the last 15 years.
In the meantime, Stacey’s birthday reminds me of what a supportive friend she was and how she pushed me to go beyond self-perceived limits, be it in climbing, running (fun fact: my first ultra-marathon ever was because of her, as a fundraiser), or pull-ups and push-ups. In that spirit, I hope to resume rock climbing soon and maybe do some sort of New Year’s Challenge in 2020 in her honor. Probably not 2020 push-ups, but something out of the ordinary. Stacey was an extraordinary individual, after all.