Mount Kilimanjaro climb became breathless adventure

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Jessica Lazar climbed a mountain to see what pulmonary hypertension feels like, and that's exactly what happened.

Ms. Lazar is a physician assistant at Allegheny General Hospital, where she works with Ray Benza on the hospital's cardiovascular clinical care team. In February, Ms. Lazar, Dr. Benza and another physician who works with patients suffering from pulmonary hypertension, Bob Frantz of the Mayo Clinic, joined a group that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,330 feet high. Climbers go through five climate zones -- from rain forest to arctic -- before they reach the summit.

The zone before arctic is alpine desert.

"You really feel like you are on the moon," Ms. Lazar told the Pittsburgh PH Support Group at the group's April meeting. "There is nothing alive."

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs, which can lead to heart failure. The chief symptom is shortness of breath. Others are fatigue, dizziness and chest pain.

Climbers at altitudes above 10,000 feet can experience pulmonary hypertension, because oxygen decreases with altitude, and lungs constrict.

Drs. Benza and Frantz and Ms. Lazar climbed the mountain in part to raise money for pulmonary hypertension research and in part to experience, briefly, what their patients experience every day.

There is currently no cure for pulmonary hypertension, but there are a number of treatments that can mitigate the effects of the disease. Drs. Benza and Frantz and Ms. Lazar raised $114,000 for pulmonary hypertension research.

Ms. Lazar earned every penny of it. The climb is difficult because the mountain is so high. Sixty percent of those who attempt it fail to reach the summit.

"We would grow short of breath tying our shoes," Ms. Lazar said.

Soon Ms. Lazar was suffering from much more than just shortness of breath. Drs. Benza and Frantz were experienced climbers, but this was her first trip. To prepare for the physical exertion of climbing a mountain, Dr. Benza and Ms. Lazar climbed the stairs at Allegheny General Hospital on their way to and from work (their offices are on the 16th floor), and when visiting patients. But nothing in Pittsburgh can prepare a rookie for the altitude.

There are six different routes to the summit of Kilimanjaro. To minimize the effects of altitude sickness, the guides for their group chose a longer, circuitous route to aid in acclimatization.

Each night they would camp several hundred meters below the height they had reached in climbing that day in order to adjust.

"Climb high, sleep low," that's the motto," Ms. Lazar said.

Despite these precautions, she got so sick from the altitude, compounded with food poisoning, she could barely move. She recalled lying in her tent alone one night when the others were eating. If she didn't improve by morning, the guides planned to evacuate her.

Ms. Lazar seemed resigned to her fate. "But then I thought, they're going to evacuate me to a Tanzanian hospital," where the standards of sanitation and care are not what she was accustomed to at Allegheny General.

Motivated by that thought, Ms. Lazar stumbled to the mess tent, where she ate a few bites of food. That night the other members of her party -- there were about a dozen besides Drs. Benza and Frantz -- took turns coming to her tent every five or 10 minutes to get her to drink water. In the morning, she felt well enough to continue.

The final climb to the summit began at midnight, "because the ground is frozen then, and it's easier to climb," Ms. Lazar said.

Ms. Lazar got dizzy and fell behind again. An assistant guide stayed with her. But she was determined to finish what she'd started, and shortly after dawn she joined her party at the summit.

As she approached the summit, "there were about 30 people [from other climbing parties] lying on the ground, some of them puking," Ms. Lazar said. They'd come so far, but couldn't finish.

Besides a much better understanding of what her patients go through each day, "one of the things I took from this is how powerful positive thinking or negative thinking can be," Ms. Lazar told the Pittsburgh PH Support Group. She said positive thoughts can help them, too, in their struggles with pulmonary hypertension.

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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