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Format: 04/23/2014
Format: 04/23/2014


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Climbing Kilimanjaro to serve Allegheny General doctor's patients

Monday, January 11th, 2010

By Andrew Conte

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Dangling from the rope attached to his safety harness, nearly halfway up the face of a 500-foot cliff, Dr. Raymond Benza stared at the ground, half-dazed from bouncing off the rocks. He could think only about his wife and son at home. 

"I realized this is what our patients go through every day," said Benza, 46, a heart and lung specialist at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.

That climb to the summit of Wyoming's Grand Teton Mountain Range three years ago raised awareness, and about $25,000 in donations, for pulmonary hypertension, a disease that affects the heart and lungs in about 100,000 Americans.

Next month, Benza plans to reach a new height by trekking to the 19,000-foot summit of Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro with Jessica Lazar, a physician's assistant at Allegheny General, and Dr. Robert Frantz, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

This time, Benza hopes to raise $100,000 for research to treat the disease. So far, the group has received $47,953 in donations. If the climbers can surpass $50,000, drug-maker Actelion has committed to matching it with another $50,000.

"It's kind of scary but it's admirable for letting people know about PH," said Helen King, 69, of Meridian in Butler County, who beat the odds by surviving with the disease for more than four years.

Money raised by the trek is being collected by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, a nonprofit started by people with the disease, and it will be used for both research and patient-support services, said Rino Aldrighetti, president.

During the event, called the Path to a Cure, the nonprofit plans to organize more than two dozen unity walks around the United States, including one from Allegheny General Hospital, he said. Besides the money, the event is drawing attention to a disease that remains mysterious and often misdiagnosed.

"These doctors at the top of the field are going to the top of the mountain to show that people who are living with this disease are not alone," Aldrighetti said.

Because the disease first affects the million miles of blood vessels in the lungs, the symptoms often are ignored or misdiagnosed, Lazar said. By the time many patients realize they have the disease, it has started to impact their hearts.

Without treatment, the patients would die within about 2 1/2 years, she said. Even with treatment, 40 percent of patients die within five years.

"This is a very frustrating disease to treat," Benza said. "It's frustrating to get to a certain point and that's all you can do. ... Climbing, for me, is one of the ways to break through the frustration."

To read more, visit the Tribune-Review web site.


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