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Allegheny General doctor scales Kilimanjaro, raising funds to fight lung illness

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010

As he approached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Dr. Raymond Benza became profoundly short of breath.

And that's exactly what he wanted.

"Our heart rates became faster and oxygen levels became lower," Benza, 46, said Friday morning, 12 hours after reaching the peak of Africa's highest mountain. "It was quite a challenge. It was the most physically challenging thing that I've done in my life."

Benza, an advocate for pulmonary hypertension awareness, completed the six-day trek to the 19,340-foot summit so he could experience what it feels to live with the illness. The high altitude causes symptoms that resemble the disease, which causes high blood pressure in the arteries to the lungs. The disease, which can lead to heart failure, affects about 100,000 Americans.

"The constant breathlessness, even when you're getting changed into your gear, was fairly profound," said Benza, director of the McGinnis Cardiovascular Institute at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. "It really showed us what our patients go through every day."

The trek was part of a fundraising effort called Path to a Cure, sponsored by the nonprofit Pulmonary Hypertension Association. Benza's team raised $109,000 that will go toward research to find treatments for the disease. The team included Jessica Lazar, a physician's assistant who works with Benza at AGH, and Dr. Robert Frantz, a friend and cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Soon after reaching the summit at about 10:45 p.m. Thursday, the group raised flags from the association. The last leg of their trek was particularly challenging because cold temperatures caused the climbers' water to freeze and they suffered windburn.

The climb was especially difficult for Lazar, who became ill from food or water poisoning a few days before they started. Lazar, 33, passed out a few times. That made her experience more real, because patients with advanced pulmonary hypertension can faint from exertion.

"I wasn't sure I was going to make it," she said. "I was severely dehydrated and didn't have strength to even zip the zipper on my tent."

Lazar made it with the support of her teammates and guides, who encouraged her to go slowly. She followed the guides' suggestions to avoid a brisk pace, especially after witnessing other climbers get sick along the way because they were walking too fast.

"It was harder than we expected it to be," she said. "It surpassed our expectation of difficulty."

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