A graduate of Pender Harbour’s class of 1987 is among 12 former Canadian soldiers who are scaling a peak in the Himalayas to make a statement about injured veterans.
Michelle Quinton Hickey — who graduated from Pender Harbour Secondary as Micki Sheppard — is one of only two women on the March to the Top team, which reportedly reached the 6,189-metre summit of Island Peak on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
“We feel this is important — to get the word out to Canadians that the war in Afghanistan is over, but the injuries aren’t over,” Hickey told CBC by satellite phone Oct. 21.
Hickey, a nurse who was medically released from the military after sustaining major ankle and knee injuries, said climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest was “a monumental challenge for me,” but added: “The camaraderie of the team … was certainly helpful.”
The March to the Top team is made up of men and women who were injured while serving in uniform — many of them in combat in Afghanistan — and is intended to help with their “rediscovery of self and their emotional, physical and mental rehabilitation,” says the expedition website (cbc.ca/marchtothetop).
Dubbed the True Patriot Love Expedition: Himalayas, the climb will be the centre of the CBC documentary March to the Top that will air in January. The film will also visit the homes and families of team members, who will talk about their injuries and their lives since leaving the Forces.
Hickey’s mother, Verla Sutcliffe, said she wasn’t surprised to learn her daughter tried out for the team, or that she’d been selected from the hundreds who applied.
“She can do anything if she puts her mind to it,” said Sutcliffe, who lives in Davis Bay. “Nothing surprises me, though this is a little shocking.”
At first, Sutcliffe said, “I kept harping to her about her knees.”
Then they learned the team would be flown down from the summit by helicopter, which Sutcliffe said eased her concern.
“But there’s also the altitude,” Sutcliffe said, noting her daughter has gallstones. “She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to the gallstones because of the altitude — the doctor didn’t know,” she said. “But so far, so good.”
Hickey moved with her family from Squamish to Pender Harbour in 1986 and joined the military as a medic after graduating the following year. She later went to university and received her nursing degree. She currently works as a nurse case manager for the Canadian Forces at CFB Kingston, where she and her military husband, Ross, live with their four children — Kane, Zara, Vanja and Rhys.
Hickey’s postings included a stint in Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) in 2004/05, but her injuries were not the result of combat.
“I suffered a crush injury to my right ankle, in my first year of service, which required a bone graft and was told I would never walk properly again and that my ankle would be fused,” Hickey wrote on the expedition website. “I fought very hard, the surgery was a success, and I was able to continue my career after much physio and gym work.”
Hickey injured her right knee while transferring a patient to a helicopter, and during basic officer training she tore a ligament on her left knee.
“These ligaments have both been replaced, and six surgeries later, the only alternative I have is for total knee replacements. Being about 15 years too young for this type of surgery, I was forced to medically release from the military (after a 22-year career) in order to preserve function and life of my knees and ankle,” Hickey wrote.
Hickey said being part of the expedition would give her insight into the struggles of other former soldiers as well as her own coping skills.
“A challenge of this magnitude forces a person to look deep within them to find inner strength and to work with others when they themselves have nothing left to give, to succeed and survive,” she wrote.
Despite the challenges, Sutcliffe said her daughter and other team members have been able to assist others on the climb.
“The last e-mail I got, she said she got to do some nursing. She gave one of the photographers an IV. And her hubby said they had already helped a few trekkers along the way,” she said.
Besides Sutcliffe, Hickey’s family on the Coast includes brother Brent Sheppard, who lives in Egmont.