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02/24/2010

Mayo Clinic's Dr. Robert Frantz at 15,000 feet...

Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Robert Frantz checked in from a six-hour, rugged hike on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa today on an "almost like a moonscape, big boulders around, mist swirling around."

He and other medical specialists are climbing with a team in part to experience the symptoms of his patients who live with pulmonary hypertension.  Oxygen saturation levels of the climbers have hovered around 82 percent.

One of the medical climbers got quite sick.  Frantz has been getting nose bleeds, which his patients sometimes get because of the medicines they must take.

"We're getting short of breath literally getting dressed which is really amazing I'll sort of scramble around in the tent to get my stuff on and have to rest for a few minutes because my heart rate's gone up and I'm out of breath," Frantz said, a typical symptom of pulmonary hypertension — a disease of the blood vessels of the lungs, which constrict, increasing the blood pressure of the lungs.

Just doing small things takes a lot of effort. When you get up on the mountain in the morning, you're promptly short of breath and have a headache. Going up the slope, Frantz had to take a few steps and then stop to take a few breaths.

"It helps me to understand what it would be like to live that way potentially day in and day out where every time you do something you know you'll have to do a little bit and rest," he said.

The nights have been extremely cold, with ice forming on the tents at night.

"Our sleeping bags aren't quite as warm as we'd hoped they were," Frantz said. "The nights are pretty darn uncomfortable." The climbers must get up repeatedly because their bodies are rapidly pushing urine. There's loose rock and a lot of challenges.

Frantz said porters from Tanzania who help the climbers sing traditional songs. One will start and another joins in.  

"They're extremely attentive in terms of making sure that we're as safe as possible," he said. He left his pack at the base of a glacier, but one of the porters was so attentive that he picked it up even though Frantz himself hadn't realized he'd left it (probably because his oxygen levels were too low).  Porters have taught them phrases in Swahili meaning "cool like a cucumber or crazy like a banana."

The environments on the mountain vary widely. On the ridges it was like a moonscape today, Frantz said.

"Today was unbelievable," he said. The climbers went up and down thousands of feet, above the clouds and back into lush growth with birds and water.  The stars at night are "fantastic," he said. The snow lit by a three-quarter moon, with extremely bright stars and the Southern Cross, which Frantz has never before seen. 

He said one strange plant is like a pineapple that closes up at night to protect itself from the cold and during the day the leaves drop down, revealing purple flowers. Another plant "almost like palms that are growing or cactus" stick up out of the stark landscape.  Frantz said this morning that "the frost is (layed) down in linear crystals ... these are like rods of frost that paved the whole way as we were walking this morning in the wet areas you could just see them along the trail, these sparkling linear arrays of ice.  I've never seen anything like it."

Frantz said the grandeur of the mountain is "really massive" and "it pokes up through the clouds."

"It's a massive mountain, it's beautiful with the cone of snow on the top and just the most remarkable variations in ecosystems I can imagine," he said.

To his patients, Frantz said, "I understand how (you) feel." One of his patients tends to have nosebleeds, and Frantz has been having those. He's been short of breath every few steps and has had headaches. He wants patients to know that the climbers are doing what they're doing so there will be better treatments in the future.

"I guess that I just want them to know that I know how they feel," Frantz said.

Audio of the interview:

• First part of today's conversation: (3 minutes): Download Frantz 2-1st part

• Second part of today's conversation (14 minutes) — wait through the lengthy pause and Frantz returns:  Download Frantz 2-2nd part of conversation VM 

• Last week's conversation is available here

• The Pulmonary Hypertension Association.


Pulse on Health

By Jeff Hansel, member Association of Health Care Journalists

Health Reporter for the Post-Bulletin newspaper, 18 1st Ave. S.E. in Rochester, Minnesota 55904 

Twitter Hansel's Pulse: @Jeff Hansel

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