March 24, 2010

Breathing Lessons

Photos courtesy of Path to a Cure

At 14,000 feet above sea level, breathing becomes labored, the heart beats harder and faster, and nausea may roll through the stomach. For doctors Ray L. Benza and Robert P. Frantz, both cardiologists, these symptoms are hardly unfamiliar. They confront them daily treating patients who suffer from a type of high blood pressure that affects the lungs, making it hard to breathe and often causing death.

Dr. Benza, Dr. Frantz, and Jessica Lazar (a physician assistant) experienced those symptoms themselves as they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last month, raising more than $100,000 to benefit the Pulmonary Hypertension Association.

The trip was the brainchild of Dr. Benza, who climbed the Grand Teton, in Wyoming, three years ago to honor a patient who died of pulmonary hypertension. The first climb raised about $25,000 to fight the disease, which afflicts an estimated 100,000 Americans.

“It’s a really important part of the whole experience, to feel what our patients feel at sea level,” says Dr. Benza, who works with Ms. Lazar at Allegheny General Hospital.

At 14,600 feet, Dr. Benza says, the climbers’ oxygen levels were about 80 percent of normal.

The climbers battled freezing temperatures, rough terrain, and pouring rain about six hours a day before they reached the mountain’s top on the seventh day of their climb.

Dr. Frantz, director of the Mayo Pulmonary Hypertension Clinic, says the experience of losing his breath so often he needed to stop every few steps “helps us to sit on the side our patients are on, where they deal with this day in and day out.”

Adrienne H. Dern, senior vice president of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, says the Path to a Cure climb has surpassed the group’s original goal, raising $ 113,252 and drawing 106 first-time donors.

Dr. Frantz said in addition to friends, colleagues, and patients who supported the climb, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drugs pulmonary hypertension patients take offered a matching grant. Local chapters of the group also have organized “unity walks” to help raise funds.

The organization represents more than 10,000 patients, family members, and medical professionals and has an annual budget that was nearly $8-million last year, Ms. Dern says.

Because the disease is fairly rare, Ms. Dern says the organization relies heavily on word-of-mouth and the personal stories of its patients to build awareness. Last year, the charity received contributions from 13,000 donors.

—Emma Carew