“I have a stupid idea,” Assaf Dory told his friend Dash Wong in January.
“I’m in!” Wong immediately replied.
The plan: Hike up a mountain to raise awareness for mental health issues. The “stupid plan” is set to come to fruition Sept. 15, when Dory’s team will summit Mount Elbert, which at 14,400 feet is Colorado’s highest mountain. They’re hiking to encourage others to ask for help and fundraise for Challenge America, a nonprofit offering veterans services based in community building.
Dory, who moved to Colorado 10 years ago, got the idea after finally regaining some mobility last year thanks to osseointegration, a surgery that connects a prosthesis directly to residual bone. He’s a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces who broke his right leg twice in the line of duty as a deputy sheriff in Pinellas County, Florida. Dory underwent more than 40 surgeries, ultimately resulting in his leg being amputated above the knee.
The surgeries also led to a diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome, nicknamed “the suicide disease.” It’s thought to develop after damage to the nervous system, resulting in chronic, severe pain, and inflammation. Dory tried a regular prosthetic in 2016, but because of CPRS, it hurt too much, he says.
Dory met Shannon von Driska, a former Army medic based in Madison, Wisconsin, through an online CRPS support group. Von Driska injured her left leg and ankle during a 10-mile ruck march in 2007. After her fourth surgery, in 2019, she knew something was wrong.
“It felt like my leg was going to explode, but was also in a vice and on fire,” she said. Von Driska soon got the CRPS diagnosis. “I was lucky to get it so quickly. It usually takes people years.”
Wong, like Dory, found a fresh start in Colorado. He medically retired from the Navy after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He had served 16 years as a special warfare combatant-craft crewman, but losing his right lung made him unable to embed with SEAL teams. His remaining lung now has scarring after battling COVID last year.
“At one point I said I was the only person on the team not on crutches or in a brace, and Assaf said, “Dude! You’re an internal amputee!”
The hike is scheduled for September as both a nod to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and because the group’s friend Steve Fotion, an Army Reserve veteran, should have recovered enough from a bodybuilding injury to participate. One of Wong’s SEAL buddies will carry his oxygen tank. They’ll also be joined by professional mountain guides, local first responders, and Challenge America staff.
The 9-mile (roundtrip) excursion will take two days. The team plans to reach the treeline, just short of 12,000 feet, to set up base camp. They’ll wake up dark and early, around 2 or 3 a.m., on the 15th to reach the peak. Dory and von Driska meet monthly for training and typically need a day or two to recover afterward. Wong has had to learn to take breaks when depleted oxygen makes him tingly. Von Driska also wears an altitude-training mask at home.
All three said they expect recovery to be brutal but be worth it to show what can be accomplished if you reach out for support.
“Anybody facing anything — especially mental health struggles — you’re not alone and you deserve to feel better,” von Driska said.
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