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ALPSIDE DOWNED: A chronic courage

alpside downed mindaviews column brady eviota

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 14 December)—Even at the summit of his singular achievement of having walked across 22 countries in an epic trek from Switzerland to the Philippines, Thomas Kellenberger did not have that extra vantage to peer at the terrible fate that awaited him ahead.

Thomas had arrived at his destination Cagayan de Oro city on May 25, 2023, 622 days since he had stepped out in Switzerland and negotiated nearly 15,000 kilometers in his fundraising trek for his foundation in Cagayan de Oro, the Island Kids Philippines.

Thomas had arrived in Cagayan like the champion who had truly overcome tremendous physical and mental obstacles, heralded by the children who had been helped by his foundation, and accompanied by his adoring supporters and the media, then finally to be welcomed at city hall.

And then came the sudden blow. His body, pushed by Thomas beyond its limits even under the unforgiving extremes of temperatures, finally broke down. Soon after the welcoming activities, Thomas collapsed in a room. He got a Filipino-style hilot (massage) using local haplas (liniment) and would recover over the night.

Thomas thought that the confounding weakness would be over soon. But he didn’t feel well in a dinner with two visiting Swiss friends the night after, and after two days of general weakness, Thomas decided to have a checkup at a local hospital, where doctors said he had a heart rate of only 33 beats per minute (bpm) and there was too much potassium in his blood.

Thomas would describe to me the next three months after: “I was very weak, I had fatigue all the time, I just wanted to sleep all the time because when I woke up, I felt uncomfortable because it felt like a rock was on top of my chest. I could not breathe well. The blood flow to my legs was not good. I was totally exhausted.”

After 6 to 7 weeks without improvement and constantly feeling very ill, Thomas said he was ready to give up. He told his Filipina girlfriend Rachel Gose, who also works at the foundation’s school as a teacher and as a foster parent, to continue his work. He texted messages to his family and the foundation’s members in Switzerland to continue raising funds for the foundation even without him. “I told myself that if this is my life now, I would rather die. I did not want to live like that,” said Thomas.

Chronic fatigue

By then the diagnosis was getting clear: chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating condition whose symptoms were varied and often confusing and would worsen with even the littlest physical or mental activity. Worse, the condition could last for years.

He recalled moments when he and Rachel would cry together because it seemed hopeless for him, but they would end up pledging to fight for life “no matter how long it would take.”

There was no timetable for his healing, but Thomas realized that he had to fight back this chronic fatigue with the same “chronic” courage that he had shown on his trek. Soon Thomas had regained the energy and will to fight back, just as he had overcome the 25 days of walking in the Philippines under the intense summer sun that had sapped him in the last legs of his trek.

When he got better enough to sit at a computer, he started working at the foundation’s office. “On a good day I could work one or two hours and then I would have to lie down on a couch and sleep for two hours. But it was a long journey to recover my strength.”

Rachel was instrumental for his recovery, shuttling between work and home to take care of him. “I don’t know how she did it. She worked at the foundation taking care of the kids, and then she took care of everything else at home because I could not do anything,” said Thomas. “She also had to be mentally strong, not knowing what was in the future for us.”

Even at work, Rachel ensured that Thomas would not be left alone at home, asking her niece or any of the older youths in the foundation to look after him. And the grateful children would go willingly to their exhausted champion, ready to serve him this time.

Said Thomas: “I finally had to accept that the people I used to serve and protect were now the ones taking care of me. I was like a little child, I could not do things on my own. It was good to see that these young people were not bothered to take care of me, how they wanted to give back, and for me to see how important I was to them.”

Thomas related how—like an unexpected gift—he would be inspired by a small stray kitten who suddenly arrived at the house and would follow him around. The kitten—now a full-grown tomcat—would be his constant companion around the house and Thomas would call the kitten “Tiger” for his fierce courage.

Kellenberger said that this stage in his life was a valuable life lesson for him. “As they say, ‘there is something good in everything.’ Even in illness, you can find some beauty. The beauty in that terrible illness that I had was that there were people around me who loved me and took care of me,” he said.

He gave this analogy: “I often said that in my journey, I went over many high mountains, but the highest mountain that I had to climb was this illness. To recover from this terrible illness, this was the biggest challenge of my journey.”

Meanwhile, Swiss officials at the Embassy in Manila who were very concerned over his health had at many points offered help to Kellenberger, assuring him of free transport and then medical help when he arrived in Switzerland.

“But I thought, in my condition who was going to take care of me? Everyone in Switzerland is working, everyone is busy. I was afraid of coming to Switzerland and being fully dependent on the help of others, and also financially.” And so he said no, preferring to recover instead in Cagayan de Oro and later in Bukidnon where the cooler climate suited him better.

Thomas was desperate enough to defer to alternative medicine, trying out the Hyssop Biological Clinic, whose treatments followed the OHT (Ozone High Dose Therapy) and the Lahodny Protocols for chronic diseases which were started by an Austrian doctor. He said the treatments definitely helped.

It would take Thomas up to five months to totally recover. When I met him at a local restaurant here, Thomas looked fit again and said he had already gained 14 kilos since he had arrived broken and exhausted in Cagayan de Oro.

Next projects

Starting this month, Thomas will be making presentations of his trek in Bern, Zurich, Rüderswil and Beatenberg to raise more funds for the foundation.

In January next year, he will work on a 45-minute documentary with a Swiss journalist using his own footage and those taken by friends in meet-ups along his route; and footage from Swiss television when he started out in August 2022 and in Serbia and on his arrival in the Philippines.

He plans to organize the thick notes he took on his 22-country journey into a book of his experiences. “What I am doing right now,” said Thomas, “ is basically just writing down stories and my experiences along the way, I am not doing it chronologically.”

Once back in the Philippines in February next year, Kellenberger will resume work on the foundation’s school projects, surveying land and properties for the school location, and looking over land titles and papers.

At the moment the potential site is a 9.5-hectare property in Indulang, Talakag, Bukidnon, about 49 kilometers away from Cagayan de Oro city, which has a cool climate and rolling land planted with fruits trees and with a 1.5-hectare forest, and has flowing water from a river and a creek on its boundary and other fresh water sources.

The plan is to build an agro-forestry project with a demonstration farm with intercropping which can keep food sustainability for the foundation’s beneficiaries. “We feed a thousand children every day in our schools and up to 85 kids in the children’s village 24/7. That’s a lot of food that we consume. We need to be food sustainable, we need to grow our own food,” said Kellenberger.

He added: “We also want to bring kids from the city to a summer camp in the mountain and do outdoor activities, to experience nature and to learn how to plant and harvest vegetables, and to learn about sustainable farming and reforestation.”

Kellenberger said the community in Indulang should benefit from the project, citing future tie-ups with the local government and the local Sangguniang Kabataan. “It’s no use having a land for your project and then later everybody is against you. We need to have a community component for the project, how to include the local farmers so that they will also benefit.”

Lastly, Kellenberger said he has personal plans, planning to settle down with his now fiancée Rachel next year.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps.)

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