Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, at more than 19,300 feet, is so difficult that only 40% of climbers attempting to summit the mountain make it, says Jessica Lazar, MPA, PA-C. The primary reason? Altitude sickness.
Lazar would know. Not only has she has specialized in treating patients with pulmonary hypertension (PH) for a decade, but also on Feb. 26 she summited Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.
Lazar, who is director of quality, research and education at the Gerald McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, traveled to Tanzania for the nine-day journey, along with her supervising physician and PH specialist Raymond Benza, MD, and Robert Frantz, MD, a PH specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The climb was part of Path to a Cure, a national campaign established by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association to raise money for and awareness about PH.
"PH is a rare disease that's not widely recognized in the medical community or the general public, and doing something such as shouting from the top of a mountain is sometimes necessary to get people to pay attention," Lazar says. "The disease is often misdiagnosed for a year before the right diagnosis is made, and without treatment, survival averages 2 ½ years," she says, which makes early diagnosis critical and makes improved awareness so important.
"Physiologically, altitude sickness causes PH in the climbers," Lazar says. "So what better way to raise awareness of PH than to give to ourselves the very same disease that our patients have?"
The team had a $50,000 fundraising goal, since Actelion Pharmaceuticals pledged to match donations dollar for dollar up to that amount. At press time, including the matching funds, Path to a Cure had raised more than $110,000.
The team's chosen route up Kilimanjaro was a less popular and more strenuous approach. They were on the trail for a longer time and slept in tents, not in the huts found on the more popular trails.
|Robert Frantz, MD, Raymond Benza, MD, and Jessica Lazar, MPA, PA-C, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in February. Courtesy Jessica Lazar
"We think it'll give us a better chance of making it to the summit because we're going slower, and that's what you need to do for altitude acclimation," Lazar told ADVANCE before the climb. "We also wanted to do something that was more in the wilderness and isolated than on a popular trail where we would encounter a lot of people."
The climbers chronicled their progress by posting to the Path to a Cure blog (http://pathtoacure.blogspot.com/) using a satellite phone.
On the ascent, Lazar was sick for days. In a post after the summit, she said, "I was very, very sick. Severely dehydrated and really didn't have the strength to close a zipper on my tent, but Ray and Bob really, really looked after me and were doing everything they possibly could to get me well as fast as possible, and although it did kind of wipe out whatever reserve I had for the last two days, I still managed through it. ... In fact, as I was doing the summit attempt, I got separated from the whole group because I kept getting lightheaded, and ... I started having exertional syncope, which is real dangerous."
Before the climb, Lazar performed cardiovascular training and prepared by hiking in Pennsylvania's uneven, hilly terrain during various weather conditions, including ice and snow, and by climbing a lot of stairs around Pittsburgh and at the hospital.
"If you do all your training on a treadmill, you could be in great cardiovascular shape, but that doesn't prepare your body for the bone-jarring kind of impact and the loose rocks and things we're going to be encountering on the mountain," she says.
Lazar says she was humbled by the outpouring of support, financial and otherwise. The team's satellite phone and other media support, for example, were donated by Gilead Sciences. Even Lazar's patients pitched in--the husband of a patient who recently died donated his wife's mini pulse oximeter so the team could monitor their oxygen saturation during the climb.
"The clinicians understand that physiologically we're developing PH up there. But the patients, I think, tangibly understand it when they see that our oxygen saturation drops to 82%," Lazar says.
Terri Schaefer is senior associate editor at ADVANCE.