Doctor and physician assistant hit stairs for mountain climb

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Dr. Ray Benza, a physician at Allegheny General Hospital, and Jessica Lazar, a physician assistant who works with him on the hospital's cardiovascular clinical care team, plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania next month to raise funds for research into pulmonary hypertension, and to experience briefly what their patients suffer every day.

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. It can lead to heart failure. There currently is no cure, but there are a number of treatments that can mitigate the effects of the disease.

"Pulmonary hypertension begins when tiny arteries in your lungs ... become narrowed, blocked or destroyed," says the Web site of the Mayo Clinic, "This makes it harder for blood to flow through your lungs, which raises pressure within the pulmonary arteries. As the pressure builds, your heart's lower right chamber (right ventricle) must work harder to pump blood through your lungs, eventually causing your heart muscle to weaken and sometimes fail completely."

The chief symptom of pulmonary hypertension is shortness of breath. Others are fatigue, dizziness and chest pain. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says it's usually caused by other diseases or conditions, such as heart and lung diseases or blood clots. Some cases are inherited; others have an unknown cause.

Hikers and climbers at extreme altitudes (above 10,000 feet) also can experience pulmonary hypertension, especially if their ascent has been rapid. The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet.

"As you increase in altitude, it decreases in oxygen, your lungs start to constrict," Ms. Lazar said.

"What we feel at 20,000 feet is what our patients feel at ground level," Dr. Benza said.

There are other physiological effects, Ms. Lazar said.

"Every day we'll feel as if we had a hangover," she said. "This is because the brain swells. We'll feel nauseated because of swelling in the digestive system."

Dr. Benza, Ms. Lazar, and a friend of Dr. Benza's, Dr. Bob Frantz of the Mayo Clinic, will fly out to Tanzania on Feb. 17, and begin their climb two days later.

"We'll start at 11,000 feet, go up to 19,000 feet on the seventh day," Ms. Lazar said. "Above 17,000 feet you have life-threatening possibilities."

Fortunately, altitude-induced pulmonary hypertension dissolves rapidly when climbers return nearer to sea level.

"It'll take us two days to get off the mountain," Ms. Lazar said. "The next day we'll be fine."

This will be the first big climb for Ms. Lazar. Two years ago, Drs. Benza and Frantz climbed the 13,770-foot Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Dr. Benza has been running about 20 miles a week, both outside and on a treadmill at home, to get in shape for the climb.

"When it's not snowing, I do a lot of running outside," he said. "The nice thing about Pittsburgh is there are a lot of hills. My son [age 14] rides on a bicycle behind me with a bullhorn."

Ms. Lazar prefers hiking in the woods, and climbing steps like those at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

But the most constant element of their training regimen is at work.

"Our offices are on the 16th floor of Allegheny General," Ms. Lazar said. "We're taking the stairs."

In addition to walking up the stairs in the morning and down them at night, Dr. Benza and his team take the stairs rather than the elevator when he does his rounds of patients on other floors.

"I think we've lost a collective 25 pounds," Dr. Benza said.

Dr. Benza and Dr. Frantz raised $25,000 for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association two years ago for their climb of Grand Teton. Their goal for the Mount Kilimanjaro climb is $100,000. Individual donations will be matched, up to $50,000, by Actelion Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a Swiss firm. For more information, see

Jack Kelly can be reached at or 412-263-1476. First Published January 20, 2010 5:00 AM


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