Friday, February 26

Summit Success!

We are thrilled to report that the K Team (Dr. Benza, Dr. Frantz, and Jessica) reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro earlier today, and are descending the mountain as we make this post!

Each Friday morning, the PHA staff gathers for our weekly staff meeting. Today we had an incredible opportunity to have the climbers call in to our meeting as they make their descent. Dr. Benza took a moment to describe his mountaintop experience:

"It was simply astounding being on the top of that mountain...and today it was hard to breathe with each step... We were stressed. It's exactly what our patients it really gave us even much more of an appreciation for what our patients have to suffer every day of their lives. And that really, really endeared us to them that much more."  

So on behalf of the climbers, thank you for the ways you have maximized this unique opportunity to impact PH awareness and support for research and patient-serving programs! Listen to the full "Summit Day" audio interview with the climbers below (interview is in two parts).

Summit Day Interview Part One - featuring Dr. Benza.

Summit Day Interview Part Two - featuring Jessica.

There will be plenty of pictures for the K Team to share upon their return to the States, so stay tuned to this blog!

Thursday, February 25

T-minus a few hours...

Today Dr. Benza, Jessica and Dr. Frantz arrived safely to camp 5, from which they will attempt to summit Kilimanjaro. The K Team's final ascent begins in just a few short hours (it will be midnight in Tanzania) - and each member of the team is anxious and excited to get started! Hear more from them now and wish them luck in the comments section!

Wednesday, February 24

The View from Karanga Camp

Jes, Dr. Benza and Dr. Frantz each check in from Karanga Camp after a long and challenging day of climbing. All are "doing quite well," particularly Jes, who has recovered from being ill for the last several days. Spectacular views from their camp abound. Our Kilimanjaro climbers are ready for their summit attempt, which kicks off late tomorrow night. Hear more directly from the K Team themselves, and wish them luck - and a good night's rest!
A message from Jessica and Dr. Benza - Feb. 24
(Due to poor satellite reception, Dr. Benza's last few words are cut off at the message's end.)

A message from Dr. Frantz - Feb. 24

Tuesday, February 23

True Determination

Each day without fail, Drs. Benza and Frantz and Jessica dial in from Mount Kilimanjaro with status updates to share with the entire PH community. On Monday, the K Team experienced otherworldly topography and amazing views. They're now facing those expected challenges as well: lowered oxygen saturation levels, increased heart rates, and altitude sickness. But they still press on, fully expecting and determined to reach Kilimanjaro's summit. Hear more about Day 3 of the climb (Feb. 22) from Drs. Benza and Frantz (and feel free to leave some encouragement if you feel led!).

Monday, February 22

"Live from the Mountain!"

As the members of the self-described "K Team" make their trek up Kilimanjaro, PHA will be occasionally making posts on their behalf along the way!

Drs. Benza and Frantz, and Jessica are checking in from the mountain each day via satellite phone - sharing with the PH community their thoughts, experiences, humor, challenges and all-around determination. Here are some of their most recent messages:

 A message from Jessica and Dr. Frantz - Feb. 20

A message from Dr. Benza - Feb. 20

Finally, take a moment to check out the following video, documenting the personal journeys of PHA’s Path to a Cure climbers. Hear why these dedicated medical professionals are scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro, and share the clip with your local press & friends!

Friday, February 19

Kilimanjaro arrival

Update from the K team! We are about to head to sleep (midnite here), in anticipation of hitting the trail in the morning. Thanks to all of you for your support as we walk together on our Path to a Cure. We are energized, invigorated, and not yet acting silly from the altitude. Well, maybe Jessy is a little silly. We are hoping to be able to blog from the mountain, so keep us in mind!

Bob, Ray and Jessy (The Three Musketeers?)

Monday, February 15

The Path

The outfitter (mountain guide) gave us our itinerary--our Path To A Cure...
  • DAY 1 (Feb 19) Arrive anytime at Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha, Tanzania. With prior arrangement, airport pick up and private transfers to the hotel are available from Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), or simply make your own way by taxi. We will gather in the evening for a pre-climb briefing and an equipment check. We will also confirm you have the appropriate mandatory medical coverage and travel insurance.

  • DAY 2 (Feb 20) We take a ride to Londorossi National Park gate to complete the necessary registration formalities, before driving a short distance on a steep track through farmland and plantations (9,200 ft). We continue climbing steadily on foot through shrub forests and stands of giant heather to reach the rim of Shira Plateau (11,000 ft). The views across the surrounding plains open up as we approach our first camp, Simba Camp (11,600 ft).[4-5 hours walking

  • DAY 3 (Feb 21)Today is an easy day to help acclimatisation and to explore the grassy moorland and volcanic rock formations of the plateau. We walk to the summit of Shira Cathedral (12,300 ft), a huge buttress of rock surrounded by steep spires and pinnacles. There is a tangible sense of wilderness here, especially when the afternoon mists roll in. From our camp near Shira Hut (12,600 ft), we take in the unforgettable views of Mt. Meru as she floats among the clouds.[4-5 hours walking]

  • DAY 4 (Feb 22) The morning walk is a steady climb away from the moorland of Shira Plateau to reach the broad upland desert beneath the Lent Hills, with expansive views in all directions. After lunch in our camp close to Moir Hut (13,800 ft), there is the option of a more strenuous afternoon walk to reach the summit of the Lent Hills (15,400 ft). We can explore the area beneath the Northern Icefields, a remote place rarely visited by tourists, with unusual views of Kibo. Few visitors get to this remote corner of Kilimanjaro.[3-6 hours walking]

  • DAY 5 (Feb 23)We enjoy a morning of gentle ascent and panoramic views, walking on lava ridges beneath the glaciers of the Western Breach. After lunch at our Lava Tower (14,900 ft), there is a steep but spectacular afternoon walk on the rocky lower slopes of the Western Breach. This afternoon excursion is highly recommended for acclimatisation purposes and for the superb views of hanging glaciers on both sides of the Breach.[4-6 hours walking]

  • DAY 6 (Feb 24) A steep descent into the bottom of Barranco Valley (12,800 ft) leads us to the famed Barranco Wall and its steep climb. At the top the undulating trail crosses the flanks of Kibo with superb vistas of the Southern Icefields. The terrain is volcanic scree, with pockets of vegetation in sheltered hollows, and a powerful sense of mountain wilderness. Our next camp is at Karanga Camp (13,100 ft), the last water point on the approach to the summit.[5-7 hours walking]

  • DAY 7 (Feb 25) We follow an easy path on compacted scree with wide views that gains altitude unrelentingly to reach Barafu Hut (14,800 ft) for lunch.There is a short acclimatisation hike to the plateau at the bottom of the southeast valley (15,700 ft). The remainder of the day is spent resting in preparation for the early morning final ascent.[3-5 hours walking]

  • DAY 8 (Feb 26) We start our ascent by torchlight about 1 a.m. so that we can be up on the crater rim by sunrise. The steep climb over loose volcanic scree has some well-graded zig-zags and a slow but steady pace will take us to Stella Point (18,800 ft), in about five or six hours. We will rest there for a short time to enjoy the sunrise over Mawenzi. Those who are still feeling strong can make the two-hour round trip from here along the crater rim to Uhuru Peak (19,345 ft), passing close to the spectacular glaciers and ice cliffs that still occupy most of the summit area. The descent to Barafu is surprisingly fast, and after some refreshments, we continue to descend to reach our final campsite, Millenium Camp (12,500 ft).[11-15 hours walking]

  • DAY 9 (Feb 27) A sustained descent on a well constructed path takes us through a lovely tropical forest alive with birdsong and boasting lush undergrowth with considerable botanical interest. Our route winds down to the Kilimanjaro National Park gate at Mweka (5,400 ft); and on through coffee and banana farms to Mweka village, where we are transferred to Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha.[4-6 hours walking]

  • DAY 10 (Feb 28) After breakfast, we can arrange for a private transfer or taxi to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO)

The PreKili Period

Last minute preparations, a touch of obsessive compulsive packing, final runs to the local REI, trying like heck during all hours of the night to make the satellite equipment work so we can blog from the mountain, wrapping up projects at work, and cherishing these final hours with my family--this is my present existence. In 36 hours I'll be checking in international, triple checking that I didn't forget my passport. Then, 26 hours after that, we will be in Tanzania, in awe of the culture, the landscape, the stark differences in daily living. In tandem to our amazement, we will find ourselves mentally preparing--and getting psyched up-- for our impending adventure of lifetime.

Thanks to all of you who have supported us, cheered us on.... even those who have placed bets on which of us will or will not make it to the top...... ;-) We thank you all. I deem the past few months in time as the "PreKili Period," and your support has helped us to be successful thus far. Our next adventure (I playfully coin as the Kiliman Period) will challenge our physical and mental fortitude. When we need to reach deep down, your enthusiasm, support, and hope will remind us of our purpose on this trek.

Thursday, February 11

Breaking News

  • Here is the video (as well as direct link to the website archive) when Dr Benza and I appeared on the KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live earlier this week.
  • Great News! We are going to post an update to this blog each day while we are on the mountain!! At a minimum, we will post text messages. If all goes well, we may be able to paste photos and short video clips. With generous donations from both private and pharmaceutical co donors, with the aid of satellites, and with a bit of perseverance and determination, we are going to do what is almost impossible--transmit data from extreme altitude (a feat historically limited to an exclusive few high budget TV/news crews and the military). ...and to think, I was once affectionately referred to as "the computer slayer"...
  • Six days and counting........

Monday, February 8

A Gift of Hope

I am touched, humbled, and reminded of my faith in humanity. This gentleman's wife, a long-time patient of ours, recently passed from PH. When I explained to the Pittsburgh Patient Support Group that extreme altitude will actually cause PH in the climbers and that at the summit we anticipate our O2 sats to be in the low to mid 80s, he volunteered to lend his late wife's pulse ox to us. It has more than average sentimental value for him. In order for her to spend her last hours with her husband coherent and awake, she refused morphine and used this pulse ox as a security blanket... she was reassured when she saw her O2 sat was not dropping.

Dr. Benza and I are extremely appreciative that he is entrusting us with such an emotionally valuable item. Not only will it help us document the altitude-induced lack of oxygen, but also, it shares the experience and purpose with one of our cherished patients. She, like so many other patients with PH, will be up there with us.

Wednesday, February 3

Frequently Asked Questions, Part 1

How long will you be on the mountain?

6 Days up, 1 day for summit, 1 ½ days to get off the mountain

We go up slowly, hiking to higher elevations in the day, then returning to lower altitude to sleep (“climb high, sleep low”) to acclimate. Think: 2 steps up, 1 step down, then 2 steps up, 1 step down…

What’s the temperature up there?

All of the above. The climb begins in the lush rainforests at the base of the mountain, then we proceed through heath, moorland, and alpine desert, before finally entering into the arctic zone. As we gain altitude, the temperatures drop as does precipitation levels and vegetation. While the temperatures in the rainforest are generally very mild, averaging 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperatures during the night ascent to the summit are frequently below zero. Therefore, climbers need to be prepared for a wide range of temperatures, especially extreme cold.

Since it is near the equator, there is no seasonal variation, other than rainy season and dry season. January, February and September are great times to climb, as they are warmer and dryer. Even during the "dry" seasons, climbers may still experience heavy rains. The mountain's weather is unpredictable.

What will be the biggest obstacle to reaching the summit?

The main reason that climbers fail to reach the summit is due to the inability to acclimatize to the high altitude quickly enough. Short of going to high altitude, there is little that one can do to pre-acclimatize before the climb. Being physically fit does not guarantee that climbers can overcome altitude issues…there are marathon runners who don’t make it. In fact, the most common group to fail is men aged 20-30 (because they overestimate their physical ability, go up too fast, then the ladies and the older folks pass their crumpled bodies).

What is our chance of success at reaching the summit?

Overall, only 40% of people who attempt Kili actually make it to the summit. We think our chances will be much better by taking a longer route, allowing more time to acclimate.

Do you really get PH from mountain climbing?

Sure do. As the body goes into high and extreme altitude, hyperventilation results in acid-base disturbances in our bodies, fluids shift into different cells leading to swelling, and lack of oxygen causes our pulmonary blood vessels to constrict—causing pulmonary hypertension. Altitude sickness ranges from “Acute Mountain Sickness” to life-threatening “HAPE” or “HACE” (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema & High Altitude Cerebral Edema—which translates to lungs full of fluid & brain swelling). We will almost certainly all get some degree of Acute Mountain Sickness, which is characterized by severe headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue (I expect to feel like I have the worst hangover of my life). We need to closely watch each other for HAPE and HACE. We would know HAPE by symptoms like coughing up blood and gurgling sounds in our lungs. We may not know it ourselves if we have HACE, as those patients get confused, hallucinate, and have neurologic symptoms like a staggering walk. In the case of HAPE or HACE, the only cure it to get off the mountain ASAP, as death can occur in a matter of 12 hours.

At the summit, we anticipate our heart rates to be in the 130s and our oxygen saturation levels to be in the low to mid 80s. The spouse of a patient who recently passed is generously donating her miniature pulse ox device so that we can measure our oxygen levels on the summit.

As we descend in altitude, the pressure in our lung blood vessels will return to normal.

Do you carry everything on your back?

No. Our outfitter includes porters who carry the heaviest loads, such as the tents and cooking supplies. We must carry everything we need during the day between campsites (clothing, food, water, trekking poles, first aid kits, sunscreen, etc). We expect about 20 lbs in our daypacks… although I promise to actually weigh mine and post it prior to departure…

What gear do you need?

I posted a detailed blog on this :

Quick List: boots, many layers of performance clothing, wool socks with liners, waterproof hiking pants and jacket, poncho, winter gear (jackets, gloves with liners, etc), balaclava, wool hat, sunhat, sunglasses, trekking poles, pack, duffel bag, four-season sleeping bag with pad, hydration systems, water filter or chemical tablets, quickdry towel, toiletries, camera, sunscreen, bug spray, toilet paper (I plan to sell for $5 a sheet to those who forget!), headlamp, compass, maps, first aid kits (including blister kit, anti-diarrhea meds, antibiotics, anti-malaria meds, attitude sickness meds (diamox, nifedipine, sildenafil, dexamethasone), painkillers, etc.

Added bonuses: laptop to attempt to download pictures and satellite transmit them to PHA for the blog real-time, satellite phone for phone interviews recorded and posted by PHA, miniature pulse ox to document our oxygen levels at the summit, the PHA flag for the summit photo, the little monkey stuffed animal to pose in the picture with me for my 2 year-old son, Tyler.

Did you need special vaccines or medicines?

As clinicians we already have many necessary vaccinations. Additional vaccines needed for Tanzania are Yellow Fever , Typhoid, Hepatitis A, polio booster, tetanus booster. Some of the meds we will bring are: anti-diarrhea meds, antibiotics, anti-malaria meds, attitude sickness meds (diamox, nifedipine, sildenafil, dexamethasone), painkillers, etc.

Monday, February 1

In the spotlight

Just found out today that we were on the cover of Hospital News. Its so great that the media is interested in this... it only helps to improve awareness!

Step by Step

In its industrial era, Pittsburgh working class often lived on the tops of the hills, commuting down to the factories on the riverbanks via extremely large sets of stairs. Hidden gems of the city's pragmatic past, there are 712 sets of stairs (totaling 4.5 vertical miles) in the city today. During some of my outdoor stair workouts, I've encountered some intriguing discoveries. Many of these steps are considered on paper as true streets. Don't try to mapquest on the South Side Slopes, as the software engine may lead your car to a left turn down a staircase. I even stumbled upon the occasional house whose only access is the stairs--no alley, no street--just the stairs (imagine carrying groceries).

This photo above is Yard Way, which has 317 stairs.

Here's a few other staircases I tackle.

The picture below shows one of the many staircases with an official street sign.