Citizen HKS Month of Service Stories: A Worthy Climb

In October 2017, I had the great honour of traveling to Tanzania with a group of friends, colleagues and project team members to raise funds for an extraordinary cause by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, to the summit.

Our group was comprised of architects from HKS, engineers from Arup and project managers – 15 of us total – who’ve been involved in the design and construction of the NHS’ (National Health Service) first high energy proton beam therapy facility, located in Manchester, England at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust hospital. Most of us have been involved in the project since its start in 2014, so it is extremely rewarding to be able to contribute toward its success in this profound and collective way.

Christie? Protons?

The Christie is a specialist NHS cancer hospital, renowned for its track record in cancer care. Established in the late 19th century, the Christie is now the largest single site cancer hospital in Europe, treating around 40,000 patients per year. As with all NHS facilities, the Christie provides its services free at the point of care, and this will be the case with proton therapy as well. The Proton Beam Therapy Centre is the Christie’s largest development to date, and an important addition to its cancer care protocol.

Proton beam therapy (PBT) is a type of radiation therapy which uses a particle accelerator (cyclotron in this case) to generate a high-energy beam to destroy tumours. The main benefit of protons over traditional radiotherapy (which uses particles of light, or X-Rays) is that the heavier particles can reach deeply embedded tumours with minimal damage to healthy tissue, and deliver a higher dose to the target tissue for a more effective treatment. This is especially important when treating children with tumours located in sensitive areas such as the head and neck, as radiation damage to these areas can lead to life-altering side effects and a diminished quality of life.

Though more widely in use in the U.S., proton beam therapy remains a relatively new and rapidly evolving type of cancer treatment, and the Proton Beam Therapy Centre in Manchester will be the first comprehensive centre (i.e. treatment and research) to open in the U.K. The Christie looks to help lead the way in developing new models of care using this incredible technology.

Climb Beneficiary: The Christie … and Cancer Patients Everywhere

Our Climb for the Christie goal was to raise £30,000 to help fund the fit-out of a proton beam research room within the facility. The majority of this new facility is funded by the U.K. central government and includes three proton beam treatment rooms and the supporting clinical and administrative spaces. However, we designed the facility to allow for a fourth room, with the intention that it be dedicated to cancer research and operated by the University of Manchester, which is quite fitting given that the proton was discovered in the 19th Century in Manchester. This research will help guide clinicians in the use of protons in cancer care, and hopefully result in medical and scientific breakthroughs that will help improve the lives of people the world over.

The Christie PBT Team

The HKS climb team included me and two of my HKS London colleagues, Jessica Karsten and Juro Jurovcik.

Our Christie project colleagues from Arup, mainly building services engineers, also completed this incredible climb. The technical challenges that this project present have been immense and our team has seemingly met every challenge. Working with such dedicated and talented individuals so closely together over the last four years, our climb team is more like a group of old friends than a project team. We trained in our spare time as well, and not unlike the Christie project, taking on another daunting challenge together seemed like a natural extension of what we already do. There’s a complete level of trust already built between us, and it served us well when we summitted Kilimanjaro.

Representing the Christie crew was Phil Turner, James Weightman and friends. This is the second project I have had an opportunity to work on with Phil – he now feels like an old friend, too. We has a fantastic group tackling this challenge, just as we have tackled the design challenges faced on the project.

The Climb

The trek will took place over nine days, beginning in rainforests at 3,010 metres (9,875 feet) and slowly ascending over the next few days across the stunning volcanic landscape. On the sixth day, we began at midnight, climbing through the dark to arrive at the summit “Uhuru Peak” for sunrise. At 5,895 metres (19,340 feet) Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain peak in the world. But there wasn’t much time for reflection before beginning our descent. Following an overnight hike, it took additional 6-8 hours to reach camp at 3,730 metres (12,237 feet). After the final day of hiking, we arrived at our lodge for a proper meal, a hot shower, and  a cold plunge in the pool.

Why We Care

Why did we climb? We believe in the amazing work of the Christie, and we believe in the promise of proton beam therapy.

Our reasons are also personal. Juro’s brother back home in Slovakia is battling cancer and undergoing traditional treatment, including chemotherapy. Of course, Juro wants the best possible treatment for his brother and, although proton beam therapy is offered in nearby Prague, it wasn’t available to him at the time he needed it. The research planned for the Christie will open new avenues of using protons on cancer types not currently treated by PTB, so that in the future it will be available to a wider population – ultimately benefiting people like Juro’s brother.

Through this epic adventure, and by telling the story of the Christie and our climb, we hoped to communicate how important this project is to us individually and as a group, and potentially life saving it will be for many people to come.