Category Archives: Health

Doc Talk: The Art of Saving Vacations

In 1986, Dr. David Gray was asked to join a team of rafters on an exploration of the Yangtze River in China. Their goal, simple: to reach the undiscovered source of the Yangtze river and raft all the way down. Although simple is quite the understatement. The Yangtze River is the 3rd longest river in the world, and the source of the river is at approximately 19,000 feet (5791 m) above sea level. 

Dr. Gray, a young physician at the time, agreed to join the mission after being told by the mission frontman, Ken Warren, that “we want you there for trauma”. Dr. Gray, however, had an inkling that the high elevation could present some interesting challenges. He consulted with two pulmonologists, but at the time, understanding of treatment at high altitude was limited–he got little advice. With eagerness and reassurance that he would “have the final say on all things medical”, he began the mission. 

The team was comprised of an eclectic group of gentlemen. From 4 Chinese Olympic athletes, to a camera man from National Geographic, the crew set forth to uncharted territory. The took a bus up the first 14,000 ft, and they learned quickly about the effects of altitude. “Everyone was sick. I’m treating headaches with narcotics, treating vomiting with phenadrine, and guess what I had for pulmonary edema: lasix!” Despite the chaos, everybody improved and the crew trudged forward. 

In their slow ascent, there came a point when the snow was nearly six feet deep — vehicles were no longer an option. The rest of the mission would be on foot. On foot, with yaks carrying their gear, the crew moved up the glacier to what they presumed was the source of the river. The photographer from National Geographic, David Schippe, had not been doing well. As the mission progressed, Dr. Gray could hear crackles in the base of his lungs through a stethoscope and sent him down to receive medical attention. This was a case of  high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE); he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

The rest of the crew reached the presumed source, “Tigers Leak Gorge”, which turned out to be one of the many Yangtze tributaries. On their decent down on “duckies”(blow-up rafts), they stopped at base camp and found David Schippe, the photographer that was supposed to have headed back to receive medical care. Their next checkpoint was at 11,000 ft; it was 600 miles away and they had no choice but to continue down with Schippe alongside. 

Unfortunately, this would be David Schippe’s last journey. “On the second day, Schippe started coughing; he gets very sick, and is put on IV. I said, ‘we need the helicopter,’ but there was no helicopter; that was all a lie. [Ken] had a short-wave radio, but he used the money for the emergency helicopter to pay his mortgage.” Dr. Gray, feeling the weight of this terrible deception, knew this would be the end of Schippe’s life.

We buried him on the river.

Dr. Gray distinctly remembers Ken Warren, the expedition leader’s announcement of their crew member’s death.

He said, ‘Dave’s dead. Suck it up, or you could be next.’

That was confirmation to Dr. Gray that this mission was not being run with any regard for crew safety. When they got to their checkpoint, Dr. Gray said “adios”. 

And so went Dr. Gray’s introduction to Altitude Medicine.

Fast forward to today, in a local brewery, Dr. Gray, equipped with the wisdom of 20 years of practice in Summit County, Colorado, after 25 years of Emergency Medicine in Corpus Christi, Texas, shares some of the essential knowledge for working in the hypoxic conditions of high altitude. An advocate for accessible and affordable health care, much of his practice involves bringing his medical services straight to his patients.

Has anything changed about what you put in your medical bag since you first started doing mobile health care?

No. I had a select group of medications I use that cover almost everything. I get an antibiotic prescription, so I can hand them their ZPak (my “go-to” medication).  I carry ventil, decadron, nubain (a synthetic narcotic) — it has some narcotic antagonist effects, so you have to be careful if you put someone on opioids on it, because it’ll put them in immediate withdrawal — Benadryl, and epinephrine.

First case of HAPE in Summit County?

He was from Scotland or somewhere in the British Isles. I sent him to the hospital, he gets in the ambulance, spends two days in the ICU in Denver, and $30K later, they send him back up!

Dr. Chris mentions that even physicians in Denver aren’t always familiar with high altitude care, and can order extensive testing for symptoms that are classic presentations of high altitude pulmonary edema. 

I got a guy from Austin; he was in his late 40’s. He had pulmonary edema, and  his O2 sats were maybe in the 70s. I said, ‘you need to go to the hospital, get out of the altitude, and go to Denver.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to leave my family, do I have to leave?’

I told him, ‘I’m going to work with you, but you have got to do everything I say. I’ll be back in the morning to give you another dose of decadron and you don’t get to sue me if this doesn’t end well.’

I see him the next day, give him another shot of decadron. He was one of the first people I allowed to stay at altitude. I wouldn’t leave anybody with that treatment if I couldn’t get him up to the high 70s.

Dr. Gray typically puts these patients on oxygen full-time at approximately 5 liters, monitors them closely, and finds patients’ oxygen saturations will typically go up into the 90’s.

I got confident with what I was doing.

He also makes a point that it’s essential to re-check vitals in these patients and to pay attention to symptoms. Too often, patients present with an acceptable oxygen saturation, around 93, and end up coming back hypoxic:

The oxygen can present normal initially because patients are hyperventilating! The respiratory muscles cannot maintain that work of breathing, and later, their oxygenation will drop! 

Dr. Gray and his own family have had their own experience with re-entry HAPE, as well:

We were back in Texas for a few weeks. I took them to the [alpine slide] back in Breckenridge, and Dillon (Dr. Gray’s son), who always got headaches, comes up to the car and throws up a bunch of red vomit. I told his sister, ‘Please tell me he drank a red soda before this.’ (He had.) Then we go home and he’s just feeling bad. I just figured, it’s his headache, or it’s a viral bug, then luckily, I put him in bed with me. At about 10 pm that night, he was coughing so much it was keeping me up. I put a stethoscope on him, and it was like a washing machine! His oxygen was 38!

I put him on five liters of oxygen and he quit coughing. The cough reflex was there because the lungs were trying to do anything to get more oxygen!

It’s not that the pulmonary edema was getting better quickly, necessarily; it took about three days for him to get better.

It ain’t about water; it’s diet.”

What I believe happens when you come two miles in the sky as abruptly as people do: most Americans are dehydrated anyways. When they get here, the body goes into defense mode. It shunts blood and oxygen into your heart and kidneys and consequently … away from your stomach. Then, they (visitors) eat restaurant portion meals and greasy steaks on vacation. That’s why vomiting is sometimes the primary symptom. 

What I tell people is if you stop in a restaurant on your way up here, choose high carb, low fat, low protein meals — carbs are easy to transport through the system. Choose smartly, eat half of what they put on your plate, and take the rest home. The last meal should be at 5 pm. 

Also, alcohol is a mild diuretic at best! The real issue is that it’s a respiratory depressant! If you need to drink on this trip, drink in the morning!

Who gets acute mountain sickness? 

Young fit males. They come up here with a resting pulse of 52 beats per minute. A well-exercised person can’t get their heart rate up to counteract hypoxia. Then they ignore their symptoms because that’s what athletes do. As for athletes, I’ve given up on that. They go 100%, and they are not going to hold back.  

Another point that Dr. Gray emphasized was the seasonal factors: 

We see a marked difference in acute mountain sickness in Winter and Summer. You are by necessity in a hyper-metabolic state in the cold. Your body is working hard using oxygen to stay warm.  Plus, people are overusing muscles they haven’t used all year. In the summer, they come up in cars and ‘meander’ up. In the winter, they fly and ascend within hours. [Ages ago], you didn’t see any altitude sickness because they came on donkeys! Very slowly! 

And if you’re not sick by day two, you probably won’t be.

By the age of 50:

Everyone who lives here should sleep on oxygen. If you haven’t been here for generations, you need to be on night time supplemental oxygen. The only exception to this is in COPD patients due to oxygen deprivation driving respiration and CO2 retention.

I tell full-time residents, ‘you need an oxygen concentrator.’ It’s a night time problem. During the day, you’re ventilating. At night, you go into a somnolent state and your breathing goes down.

Muscles are healthier when you use them, that goes for the heart too. We (Summit county residents) are hyper-dynamic, cardiac-wise. If you supplement with oxygen at night, you keep the process of pulmonary hypertension from developing. 

Advice to the Traveler

Diamox: it changes your acid base chemistry, acidifying your serum, which, essentially, turns you into your own ventilator. Some people are aware of their increased respiratory depth and it may bother them. 125 mg twice a day, beginning two days before travel. Any dose greater than that will just increase side effects. 

The Water Issue: you can’t make up for chronic dehydration during the day. The biggest loss of fluid from the human body is insensible loss – moisturizing the air you breathe! Altitude also produces diarrhesis, as well as a lot of intestinal gas. The poor bacteria in your GI are also hypoxic.

Talking Altitude Medicine with Dr. David Gray

Dr. Gray opened his own practice in Breckenridge, CO caring primarily for travelers. With the motto “We save vacations,” he expresses a true passion for the demographics of the population and practice at high altitude. He developed his practice by networking closely with local ski industry workers, from lifties to ski shop employees, and provides fee for service immediate care to his patients. 

Autumn Luger is a physician assistant student at Des Moines University. She grew up in the small town of Bloomfield, Nebraska where the population of cattle vastly outnumbered humans. From there, she moved on to study biology and chemistry and eventually receive her bachelor’s degree at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. She enjoys leisurely running, competitive sports, hikes in beautiful locations, attempting to bake, thrift shopping, and expressing creativity through art. Since being in Summit County, she has discovered some new interests as well: snowshoeing, hot yoga, and moonlit hikes.

Doc Talk: Nutrition & Oxygen as Preventative Medicine

Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet has been practicing in Summit County, Colorado’s mountain communities since the 80’s, when he first arrived as a medical student. He currently practices at High Country Health Care, bringing with him a wealth of experience in holistic and homeopathic philosophy, such as transcendental meditation and Ayurvedic medicine, as well.

This past week, Dr. Chris managed to sit him down over a cup of coffee in Breckenridge to talk Altitude Medicine. And not a moment too soon, as PJ is already on his way back to Sudan for his 11th trip, one of many countries where he has continued to provide medical resources for weeks at a time. He’s also done similar work in the Honduras, Uganda, Gambia, Nepal, and even found himself out in the remote Pacific, on Vanuatu, an experience overlapping Dr. Chris’s own experience spending decades as a physician in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Experience is everything when it comes to High Altitude Health. I asked PJ if there was any such thing as a “dream team” of specialists he would consult when it came to practicing in the high country: more than any particular field, he would prefer physicians with the long-served, active experience that Dr. Chris has in the mountain communities.

Complications at altitude aren’t always so straight-forward. Doc PJ sometimes refers to the more complex cases he’s seen as “bad luck”, “Not in a superstitious way,” he explains, but in “a combination of factors that are more complex than we understand,” not least of all genetics and hormones.

At this elevation (the town of Breckenridge is at 9600’/2926 m), he’s seen all cases of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): chronic, recurring and re-entry. The re-entry HAPE he sees is mostly in children, or after surgery or trauma, which Dr. Chris speculates may be a form of re-entry HAPE.

He’s seen one case of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), a condition more commonly seen in expeditions to even more extreme elevations (see our previous article, Altitude and the Brain). In this case, “a lady from Japan came in with an awful headache, to Urgent Care at the base of Peak 9 … she lapsed into a coma, we intubated her, then flew her out.”

How common are these issues in residents?

It’s probably a genetic susceptibility. More men come down with HAPE at altitude, or estrogen-deficient women. Estrogen may protect against this. When I first moved up here, we used to have a couple people die of HAPE every year! The classic story is male visitors up here drink on the town after a day of skiing, don’t feel well, think it’s a cold, and wake up dead. A relatively small number of the population up here has been here for decades. Most move here for only 5 – 10 years; even kids [from Summit County] go to college elsewhere, then move away.

In addition to hypoxia, severe weather and climate are also associated with extreme elevation. Do you observe any adverse physiological responses to the cold or dryness, etc. at this elevation?

Chronic cold injury probably takes off a few capillaries every time you’re a little too cold.

At this, Dr. Chris chimes in, “People who have lived here a long time may have more trouble keeping their hands and feet warm.”

Do you have any advice for athletes, or regarding recreation at altitude?

Don’t be an athlete up here very long. Don’t get injured. You can train yourself to perform a certain task, but that might not be healthy for you [in the long term]. Really long endurance athletes – that might not be good for your health, long-term. I see chronic fatigue often, they kinda hit a wall after years: joint issues, joint replacement, …

We’re observing a relatively recent trend with many high altitude and endurance athletes subscribing to a sustainable, plant-based diet. We’ve also encountered a lot of athletes consuming vegetables and supplements rich in nitrates to assist with their acclimatization. Do you have any experience with or thoughts on these techniques?

Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, not a lot of simple carbohydrates, not a lot of refined grains. Eat whole grains. I’ve been vegan for a while; it’s been an evolving alternative diet.

Do you ever recommend any other holistic or homeopathic approaches to altitude-associated conditions, healing or nutrition?

Why don’t you get some sleep? Eat better? Don’t drink? Pay attention to your oxygen? Sleep with air? … If you’re over 50 and plan to be here a while, you might sleep on oxygen. I can’t imagine chronic hypoxia would benefit anyone moving here over 50. It may stimulate formation of collateral circulation in the heart, but we’re probably hypoxic enough during the day. It might benefit athletes that want to stimulate those enzymes in their bodies, but even that would be at a moderated level, not at 10,000 ft.

We’re onto something here: Dr. Chris has seen a lot of benefits in some of her patients sleeping on oxygen. If you haven’t already heard, Ebert Family Clinic is currently deep in the middle of a nocturnal pulse oximeter study, where subjects spend one night with a pulse oximeter on their finger to track oxygen levels as they sleep. This will provide more data on whether certain individuals or demographics may benefit from sleeping on oxygen.

In the case of pulmonary hypertension, probably 50% of people who get an electrocardiogram may experience relief from being on air at night. Decreased exercise tolerance when you’re over 50 might be a good case for a recommendation. I don’t think we ever have ‘too much oxygen’ up here; ‘great levels of oxygen at night’ are about 94%. Humans evolved maintaining oxygen day and night [in the 90s], same with sodium, potassium, etc., at a fairly narrow tolerance.

Are there any myths about altitude you find you frequently have to clarify or dispel?

Little cans of oxygen! it’s predatory marketing! It’s so annoying! We’re littering the earth and taking people’s money for ‘air’! Just take some deep breaths, do some yoga for a few minutes … sitting for 30 minutes at an oxygen bar might help. There’s no way to store oxygen in your body, so within 15 minutes, it’s out, but the effects might last, but it gives a false sense of security. 

Also,

IV fluids! DRINK WATER! Or go to a place where you can get real medical care. Most vitamin mixtures, or ‘mineral mojo’, is not real. First of all, don’t get drunk! Drink way less. Dr. Rosen, a geriatric psychiatrist, sees a lot of older guys with MCI (mild cognitive impairment), they’ve had a few concussions, have a drink a day and have lived at altitude for a while. He sees more of these guys here than at low altitude. It’s part of my pitch for guys to sleep on oxygen and minimize alcohol. We don’t have the science to take one or two drinks a week away, but just add oxygen.

Do you have to change the way you prescribe medications due to altitude? Has anything else changed about your practice after moving to altitude?

I don’t [prescribe] steroids as much. Even if it’s rare, I don’t think [steroids] are as benign as other doctors. I avoid antibiotics if possible.

Do you yourself engage in any form of recreation at altitude? How has the altitude played a role in your own experience of this?

I didn’t exercise much until I was 40. [Now] I trail run in the summer, which I think is better than road running (‘cave man’ didn’t have completely flat pavement to run on for miles and miles). In the winter, I skin up the mountain almost every morning; [also] mountain biking. 

Ease in to exercise gradually. Exercise half an hour to an hour a day, but do something every day, even if it’s 10 minutes. And don’t get injured.

Doc PJ also has a handout he most often refers his patients and visitors at High Country Health to, here.

robert-ebert-santos

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

High Country Healthcare’s Guide to Altitude and Acclimatization

Welcome to Summit County! At the high elevations of the Colorado Mountains, everyone is affected by altitude to some degree. As you go to higher altitudes, the barometric pressure decreases, the air is thinner and less oxygen is available. The air is also dryer and the ultraviolet rays from the sun are stronger. At elevations of 8,000 plus feet your body responds by breathing faster and more deeply, resulting in shortness of breath, especially on exertion. Many people develop mild symptoms of headache, nausea, trouble sleeping, and unusual tiredness, which we call acute mountain sickness or AMS. These symptoms usually go away in a day or two. If symptoms are severe, persist or worse, you should consult a doctor. A short visit to a physician may save the rest of your vacation.

A more serious condition is called high altitude pulmonary edema or HAPE. This condition is recognized by a wet cough, increasing shortness of breath, and the feeling of fluid building up in your lungs. Other symptoms may include disorientation or confusion. If you feel any of these symptoms developing you need to seek medical attention immediately. HAPE is easy to treat but can be life threatening if left unattended.

The effects of high altitude can be decreased by following these recommendations:

  • Increase Fluid Intake – drink two or three times more fluid than usual, water and juices are best; adequate hydration is the key to preventing altitude illness. You should drink enough fluids to urinate approximately every two hours.
  • Avoid alcohol and minimize caffeine on your day of arrival and one to two days thereafter; be very careful if consuming alcohol, and remember, at this altitude, you may be much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and sedatives (caffeine and alcohol are dehydrating).
  • Decrease salt intake – salt causes your body to retain fluid (edema), which increases the severity of altitude illness.
  • Eat frequent small meals high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and low in protein.
  • Moderate physical activity and get plenty of rest.
  • Medications and oxygen can help you feel much better. Diamox is a prescription drug which prevents the unpleasant symptoms for many people. Recent experience suggests that a small dose of Diamox suffices: 125 mgs in the morning before you arrive at altitude, again that evening, and each morning and night for two days after arrival. It is generally a well tolerated medicine with few side effects. It should not be taken by anyone who is allergic to the sulfa class of medicines. Some people may experience a tingling sensation in their fingers, toes and around their mouth. You may also notice a subtle change in your sense of taste; especially carbonated beverages may taste flat. As with any medication, take only as directed and discuss any potential side effects with your physician.
  • Studies have shown that spending 1 -2 nights at a modest altitude of 5000 – 6000 feet decreases symptoms when you go higher.
  • The effects of the sun are also much stronger at high altitudes, even in cold weather! Be sure to use sunscreen of at least SPF 15 to avoid sunburn.
  • Have fun and enjoy the mountains!

**This was taken from a handout provided by Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet at High Country Healthcare in Summit County, Colorado.**

Dr. Chris’s Tips for Staying Active Through the High Country Winter

Welcome to another Winter in the High Country! We’ve already had a series of snow storms in record-breaking cold temperatures across Colorado. On one hand, snow conditions are excellent! On the other hand, it’s sometimes cold enough to make you want to stay inside! One of the most effective ways to warm up is from the inside, out. Don’t forget about all the little opportunities you have to move your body and get your blood flowing, before, after, and even in the middle of a work day. Dr. Chris always has some valuable insight that she shared in a recent chat:

What keeps most of your patients from being more active during the Winter as opposed to the Summer?

Except for sledding and ice skating, Winter sports around here are very expensive. Not only is the equipment expensive, but having enough free time to actually go out and do something that takes more than one hour is very difficult for many of our families who are working two or three jobs, since Winter is the busiest season. Also, many of the parents did not grow up in a climate with snow, and came to Summit County for jobs, but not necessarily for recreation.

Is an hour your recommended duration for exercise?

Many studies have shown that 30 minutes a day of movement, whether it’s walking, running or dancing, can lead to adequate fitness. Personally, my goal is 14 hours a week. There are so many things that I want to do, and I want to do them fairly well and fairly intensely, so an hour a day isn’t enough for me to feel like I’m pursuing a maximum fitness level.

Aside from the obvious downhill skiing and snowboarding, what are some healthy activities you recommend during the Winter?

Shoveling snow, snow shoeing, hiking trails that are packed down, on Yaktrax “ice cleats” (inexpensive and very healthy, very good workout), hut trips (gives you a destination, which adds variety and camaraderie to your exercise; carrying a pack adds to your aerobic workout; on your way up, you’re getting the extra workout, but on your way home, it’s almost always downhill (and your pack is lighter), sledding, building snowmen or snow forts …

Do any of these activities provide benefits especially advantageous at altitude?

By doing any activity at altitude, you are increasing your cardiopulmonary fitness (heart & lungs). 

If you’re just getting started, aim for 20 minutes a day, and add five minutes every week. Listening to podcasts, books or music makes everything less painful and more fun. Get a buddy to engage in these simple activities with you. Wear layers for the weather. Being outside doesn’t have to be uncomfortably cold, and you’ll be more inclined to exercise longer if you’re not freezing.

Pay a little more attention to how you can anticipate your hunger throughout the day. I try to keep some nuts, cheese, grapes, small chocolates at my desk, in my pocket, in my car for quick snacks. A smoothie or coffee in a portable cup really cuts the hunger over a good amount of time.

Take advantage of down time to do a few stretches wherever you are. This opens up circulation, allowing your body better access to the nutrients and oxygen your blood delivers.

Be on the lookout for The Doc, cross country skiing on snow day streets, sledding at Rainbow Park, or getting a good stretch in just about anywhere. And let us know if you have a favorite activity that’s easy to fit into a busy or cold, indoor day that you’d recommend!

robert-ebert-santos

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.


Sickle Cell Anemia at Altitude: a Case Report

Martin, a 27-year-old African American male, presents to a rural mountain hospital with complaints of left upper quadrant abdominal pain. Martin arrived at altitude (9,400 feet) two days ago from Oklahoma City after a 12-hour drive. Shortly after arriving to his condo in the mountains, Martin developed a dull aching pain to his left upper quadrant. The pain is constant but radiates to his L flank intermittently. Martin tried snowboarding today but had to end his day early because the pain became too severe. Martin cannot identify any aggravating or relieving factors and states that ibuprofen “didn’t even touch the pain.” Martin denies associated nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, urinary symptoms, fevers, chills, enlarged lymph nodes, or fatigue. His medical history is significant sickle cell trait without active disease. He has a negative surgical history, takes no daily medications, and has no known allergies. *

Differential diagnoses considered include kidney stones, pancreatitis, gastritis, diverticulitis, splenic enlargement, an infarcted spleen, or mononucleosis. Laboratory tests ordered include a complete blood count, reticulocyte count (indicator of immature red blood cells production), lactate dehydrogenase (an indicator of red blood cell destruction), haptoglobin (a binding protein that binds free hemoglobin after red blood cell destruction), a complete metabolic panel, and a urine analysis. A CT scan of the abdomen with contrast was also ordered and performed. 

Martin’s results showed an elevated white blood cell count, sickled cells on his blood smear, mildly elevated reticulocyte count and lactate dehydrogenase, low haptoglobin, and an elevated bilirubin. The remainder of his blood work was unremarkable. The CT scan showed a 40% infarction of his spleen. Martin was treated with oxygen, fluids, and IV pain medication and was promptly transferred to a larger hospital at lower elevation. 

What caused all of this to happen? 

Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a mutation of the HBB gene that affects the development of normal hemoglobin, the major oxygen transporting protein in the body. SCA is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder which means that two copies of the abnormal gene have to be passed on from both parents in order for the disease to be active in the offspring. So, in other words, if both parents are carriers of the abnormal gene, their offspring have a 25% chance of developing the active disease and a 50% chance of becoming carriers themselves. 

http://www.healthnucleus

The hemoglobin protein is made up of four subunits, 2 alpha-globin and 2 beta-globin. Sickle cell carriers will have a mutation of one of the beta-globin units, resulting in no clinical manifestations of the disease. These individuals live normal lives and are virtually unaffected by the mutation, as seen in Martin’s case. Individuals with active disease will have a mutation in both of the beta-globin subunits, creating sickling of their red blood cells. Sickling of red blood cells makes them less flexible in maneuvering through the vasculature, ultimately resulting in a blockage of blood flow to various tissues in the body. This is cause of severe pain that many individuals experience when in crisis. Sickled cells are also more prone to destruction leading to an anemic state and are inefficient oxygen transporters. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/27669979993

The sickle cell mutation is typically found in certain ethnic groups which is thought to be related to the protective quality of sickled cells from the development of Malaria. The ethnic groups most likely to be affected include African Americans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Latinos, Indians, Individuals from Mediterranean descent, and those from the Caribbean. 

But if Martin was a carrier without active disease, why did he develop sickle cell anemia?

Individuals with the sickle cell trait can cause their cells to sickle under extreme stress including during strenuous exercise, severe dehydration, and when at high altitude. The resulting consequence is the manifestation of all of the symptoms of active disease. Although Martin had never had any symptoms related to his sickle cell trait, he was now in full sickle cell crisis that required immediate intervention. 

What are the implications? 

Individuals from any of the ethnic groups listed above should be tested for the sickle cell trait to ensure they are not carriers. A carrier must exercise extreme caution in ascending to high altitude, should stay well hydrated, and avoid strenuous exercise to prevent the development of a sickle cell crisis. 

*Case scenario is not based on any individual patient rather a compilation of varying presentations seen in the emergency department. 

Liya is 3rd year Doctor of Nursing Practice Student attending North Dakota State University. She lives in Breckenridge, Colorado and works as a registered nurse in the Emergency department. Liya was born in Latvia and moved to the United States in 1991 with her family. She grew up in the Washington, DC area until she moved to Colorado in 2012.  She is passionate about helping immigrant families and other underserved individuals gain access to basic healthcare services. She hopes to work in Family Medicine in a federally qualified health center in the Denver metro or surrounding areas. In her spare time, Liya enjoys hiking, snowboarding, biking, and camping. 

References

Adewoyin A. S. (2015). Management of sickle cell disease: A review for physician education in Nigeria (sub-Saharan Africa). Anemia, 2015. doi:10.1155/2015/791498

American Society of Hematology. (n.d). Sickle cell trait. Retrieved from https://www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/Sickle-Cell-Trait.aspx

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Sickle cell anemia. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sickle-cellanemia/symptoms causes/syc-20355876

U.S National Library of Medicine. (2019). Sickle cell disease. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/sickle-celldisease#inheritance

Yale, S.H,, Nagib, N., & Guthrie, T. (2000). Approach to the vasoocclusive crisis in adults with sickle cell disease. American Family Physicians, 61(5), 1349-1356. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0301/p1349.html

Mental Health at Altitude

Last year, 20% of U.S. adults experienced a mental health disorder (CDC). Mental illness is a leading cause of disease burden worldwide, and therefore, needs to be talked about. Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, drug/alcohol abuse, etc., have devastating consequences on the individual’s quality of life and overall wellbeing. Mental illness emerges from a complex interplay of genetic, psychological, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Environmental exposure is important to consider when looking at mental health, especially at high altitude. Up in the mountains, we must consider oxygen availability on the impact of our mental wellbeing. 

Numerous studies have shown rates of depression and suicide to be higher at high elevations (Figures 1 & 2), even when controlling for other variables such as socioeconomic status and demographics (Kim et al., 2014).

Why is this?

Some researchers propose that low blood oxygen levels from lower atmospheric pressure at altitude (called hypobaric hypoxia) has something to do with it. Animal studies done on rats and short term human studies have found this connection (Kanekar, 2015), and altering brain bioenergetics and serotonin metabolism could have something to do with it. Both pathways are affected by depression, and both are affected by hypoxia (Hwang, 2019). Hypoxia may lead to suppressed mitochondrial functioning, resulting in a change of how our cerebrum uses its energy. Patients with depression have a harder time using energy in their pre-frontal cortex, which makes it harder to concentrate and fight off negative thoughts. If this is already the case at low altitude, being at higher altitude may make moods more unstable and focus even harder to obtain. 

Second, hypoxia may lead to decreased serotonin levels in the brain, which is a very important neurotransmitter targeted in the treatment of anxiety and depression. These medications, known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) allow more serotonin to hang around in the brain. If normal antidepressants are less effective at elevation, we need to take another look at the current treatment plan. Researchers are looking into a medication that is a precursor to serotonin that bypasses the oxygen-dependent phase of the reaction. It is called 5-hydroxytryptophan. Creatine monohydrate may also be effective in treating depression at altitude (Ramseth, 2019). This is an exciting opportunity in mental health at altitude research; one that may yield more effective treatment for people living in the mountains.

However, we cannot be certain that high altitude is causing the increased rates of depression and suicide (Reno, 2018). After all, correlation does not equal causation. There are multiple confounding variables at play, such as population density, characteristics of suicide victims, access to health care, religious beliefs, and ownership and access to firearms. Even though we do not know the cause, the correlation is clear. Because of this, clinical professionals at high altitudes need to be vigilant when exploring this concern with patients. 

Looking at the flip side, multiple studies support positive effects of altitude on mental health. It is well known that physical activity is good for your body and mind. In general, exercise improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, in addition to increasing quality of life and resilience (Hufner, 2018). An interesting report found that physical activity in the mountains has even more benefits on mental health than exercise at sea level (Ower et al., 2018). This was found to be because building a personal bond to an individual mountain enhances the positive effect of the outdoors on mental health. Think about that the next time you look up at a mountain you once stood on top of. In addition, a mountain hiking program in the Alps has been shown to improve hopelessness, depression, and suicidal ideation when added on to usual care in patients who were at high risk for suicide (Sturm et al., 2012). Programs like these utilize high altitude in a positive way to treat mental health conditions.

Overall, mental health at high altitude is a complex topic that needs more research. The most important thing we must all remember is to seek help when we need it, and to never feel ashamed if you are struggling with a mental health concern. Remember: You are doing your best. 

If you or a loved one are in a crisis but don’t know where to turn, consider calling Colorado Crisis Service toll-free at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255 to speak to a trained professional.

If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, here is an interview with reporter Rae Ellen Bichelle on NPR news discussing mental health at altitude:

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/752292543/752292544

Maggie Schauer is a 2nd year PA student studying at Des Moines University. She is from Pewaukee, WI and obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UW-La Crosse. After completing her pediatrics rotation at Ebert Family Clinic, Maggie will be going around the Midwest until her final international medicine rotation in Belize! She loves cheese, the Packers, hiking, running, waterskiing, and almost anything outdoors. Her current plan is to become a physician assistant in psychiatry and live somewhere exciting (like the mountains), until eventually moving back to Wisconsin. Her dream is to hike every 14er in Colorado; she currently has two under her belt: Grays and Torreys.

References:

  1. Ha, H., & Tu, W. (2018). An Ecological Study on the Spatially Varying Relationship between County-Level Suicide Rates and Altitude in the United States. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), 671. 
  2. Hufner, K., Sperner-Unterweger, B., & Brugger, H. (2019). Going to Altitude with a Preexisting Psychiatric Condition. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 20(3).
  3. Hwang, J., DeLisi, L. E., Öngür, D., Riley, C., Zuo, C., Shi, X. , Sung, Y. , Kondo, D. , Kim, T. , Villafuerte, R. , Smedberg, D. , Yurgelun‐Todd, D. and Renshaw, P. F. (2019), Cerebral bioenergetic differences measured by phosphorus‐31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy between bipolar disorder and healthy subjects living in two different regions suggesting possible effects of altitude. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., 73: 581-589.
  4. Kanekar, S., Bogdanova, O., Olson, P., Sung, Y., D’Anci, K. Renshaw, K. (2015). Hypobaric Hypoxia Induces Depression-like Behavior in Female Sprague-Dawley Rats, but not in Males. High Altitude Medicine & Biology; 16 (1)
  5. Kim, J., Choi, N., Lee, Y. J., An, H., Kim, N., Yoon, H. K., & Lee, H. J. (2014). High altitude remains associated with elevated suicide rates after adjusting for socioeconomic status: a study from South Korea. Psychiatry investigation, 11(4), 492–494.
  6. Ramseth, L. (2018, July 1). University of Utah research shows high altitude linked to depression and suicidal thoughts. In The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved October 17, 2019.
  7. Reno, Elaine, et al. (2018). Suicide and High Altitude: An Integrative Review. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 19(2).

Open Call for Interviews on Parkinson’s at Altitude

Earlier this year, our students published some articles on Parkinson’s disease at altitude. One was an account of patients experiencing some relief from their symptoms at high altitude, and another involved a local couple in our region of the Rockies.

We’ve since received a lot of attention to these articles specifically and would like to hear from more people who have any feedback to share about their experience at altitude with Parkinson’s disease.

Feel free to send us an e-mail – admin@ebertfamilyclinic.com

The Legacy of the Mountain Guru: Prof. Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Castillo

We’ve published a series of accounts from Dr. Chris’s recent attendance at the 7th Annual Chronic Hypoxia conference in La Paz, Bolivia , conducted by Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Castillo. He is one of the world’s leading experts of altitude medicine and Dr. Chris’s collaboration and contact with him has added literally phenomenal insight into our own high altitude research.

Dr. Chris “en Teleférico” with fellow altitude researchers Vanessa Moncada, Diana Alcantara Zapata, Dzhunusova G. S., Oscar Murillo, and Alex Murillo. Photo courtesty of Dr. Zubieta-Castillo.

There is something literarily romantic about the scientists who are compelled to remind you, “I’m not crazy!” Dr. Zubieta-Castillo has held soccer games at 6,542 m (21,463′), proving the remarkable adaptability of the human body. He maintains a high altitude training lab, called the Chacaltaya Pyramid, at 5,250 m (17,224′). In his recent video (below), he illustrates the connection between longevity and elevation, where citizens of the highest cities in South America live to be well over 100.

It’s notable that a city known for its wine at 2,790 m (9,153′), called Chuquisaca, boasts some of the oldest residents. Not surprisingly, our research has led us to some speculation on the relationship between alcohol and the body at altitude. Additionally affirming is Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s father, nicknamed “El Guru de la Montaña”, who began his legacy of altitude research and medicine by examining the hearts of dogs at altitude (sound familiar? See our article on Dogs at Altitude), as well as Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s own testament that asthma can be and has been treated by altitude (see Asthma at Altitude).

His latest correspondence with Dr. Chris and their mutual colleagues reads like letters written by history’s greatest scientists, beginning,

Dear Colleague Scientists:

The 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium, thanks to your outstanding participation was a great success !! We shared great scientific, friendship and enthusiasm from 16 countries, along with travel and conferences in fascinating environments, all at high altitude.

The letter ends with an invitation to all colleagues to contribute their own research to the first chronic hypoxia-dedicated issue in a top medical journal, so be on the lookout for Dr. Chris’s contribution (which we will be sure to share here).

The video below is a fascinating look into some of Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s latest research, including his theories and recommendations on conditioning humans in space with hypoxia, a dissertation that was initially dismissed as irrelevant, then subsequently published. Enjoy!

robert-ebert-santos

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

Can Living at Altitude Alone Improve Your Health?

There has been a lot of speculation among all the locals and visitors up here, even the students who do rotations with us, on whether merely living at altitude can yield health and/or fitness benefits. And this is a conversation that has been going on for quite some time.

At our clinic, what we’ve been finding over these past two decades of our practice and research is that the way individuals respond to altitude is not so simple. Yes, in many cases of acute mountain illness we see, the remedy may simply be more oxygen, whether that means being hooked up to an oxygen concentrator or descending in elevation. But the answer to whether living at high altitude will improve your health and/or fitness in itself is much more complex.

Studies have been and continue to be conducted all over the globe, not surprisingly in other countries with high-altitude communities like India, Nepal, Argentina, and Bolivia (you may remember Dr. Chris’s accounts of the Chronic Hypoxia conference she attended earlier this year in La Paz). An article in Berkley Wellness from 2014, Are Higher Elevations Healthier?, cites some speculation that appetite may be suppressed at higher elevations because of the effect it has on hormones like leptin, and that the added physical exertion required for your body to function in an environment with lower oxygen may also require more calories.

Sure. This is consistent with some of our own speculation at Ebert Family Clinic. But there is so much more to it.

Hiking rations up to one of Colorado’s remote mountain huts.

Altitude does demand a lot from the body. Bodies born and raised up here tend to be more well-adapted. Bodies not born, but raised up here certainly have a great chance at achieving more advanced levels of acclimatization. Healthy bodies that come up to altitude on occasion may experience little to no symptoms of mountain illness. But as soon as a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition comes into play, all bets are off, and the high altitude can become more of a threat than an asset.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen some recent studies (and personal accounts from patients and readers) that indicate certain conditions may experience relief from various symptoms at higher elevations (see Altitude As Asthma Treatment or Increasing the Altitude to Decrease the Symptoms of Parkinsons). And there are many other variables here besides the elevation, like air and water quality or culture. Summit County’s population is consistently rated among the healthiest, most long-lived in the country. But how much does the culture of outdoor activity influence that? And how does the popularity of craft beer and marijuana use affect that? Is there a “typical” diet up here?

Somewhere in Eagle County, CO.

The way each individual body acclimatizes depends on so many physiological factors and fine processes. Very generally, the better your body carries out these processes, the easier your life at altitude will be. With this in mind, it might seem that those who thrive at altitude are already in good shape, while those who are prone to the most difficult transitions may very well be fighting other inhibiting factors already.

It would seem that for every accommodation your body makes at altitude that may benefit its function at sea level, there are other compromises. We’ve heard from more than one athlete that muscle training at altitude may not be as effective, because your cardiovascular and respiratory capacity will max out before you reach the limit of your strength. We’re also finding that blood oxygen saturation levels may be lower at altitude for many people while sleeping. While lower oxygen may stimulate some beneficial transformation in the body (increased red blood cell counts, for example), it may also very quickly complicate body function under certain conditions. In addition to all that, there is a strong genetic factor to an individual’s response to altitude that we still have much to learn about.

robert-ebert-santos

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

Closer to the Sun: The Dermatological Benefits and Consequences of Living at High Altitude

As many of us know, high-altitude living goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and skiing. But with all that outdoor activity comes an insidious risk: radiation from the sun. According to an article interviewing Kim Guthke PA-C, a Physician Assistant working in Dermatology in Boulder, CO, “living at a higher elevation exposes us to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation when compared to sea level” (Guthke 2018). This means that with all the outdoor activities we enjoy, we must also be proactive about protecting our skin from high altitude sun and the increased risks of long-term skin issues it brings. 

Using thick UV-protectant clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen (and reapplying it) are great ways to protect our skin from the sun. However, some new research has argued that we are actually hurting our health by staying away from the sun. In a revelational article from Outside magazine called “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?”, Rowan Jacobsen uncovered a novel study claiming only the sun can provide the vitamin D we need. He claims that we are trying and failing to supply vitamin D with pills alone, and the pills just aren’t good enough. Vitamin D is a vitamin required for calcium absorption whose levels, if low, can increase one’s risk of “cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions, and more” (Jacobsen 2019). Thus healthcare workers have concluded that supplementing it will obviously decrease the risk of these diseases. 

Jacobsen reports that multiple different studies have proven that supplementation of vitamin D just isn’t enough to lower that risk. The studies reported that even if supplementation raised vitamin D levels, the general health of the patient did not improve. There was no correlation between high supplemented vitamin D levels and overall health.

So, why was this?

Jacobson claims that vitamin D is actually just a marker for overall health. In other words, raising vitamin D by artificial supplementation does not make one healthier; rather, to raise one’s vitamin D level one must live a healthy lifestyle outside in the sun. Jacobsen states, “…what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. … Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health — that big orange ball shining down from above” (Jacobsen 2019). 

Soaking up the Vitamin D on Lake Dillon.

So, what are the implications of this study? Does this mean we all need to stop using sunscreen in order to absorb the most natural form of vitamin D and subsequently decrease our risk of dangerous diseases? Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that the best way to absorb vitamin D is from the sun and sunscreen does inhibit that absorption.

No, in that one day of playing at the beach and getting horribly sunburnt is not going to raise your vitamin D levels enough to benefit your health.

Unfortunately, the answer is quite complicated. I believe the implication of this new information is that we all need to start getting outside every day, exercising, enjoying the mountain air, and absorbing small amounts of sunlight each day, rather than just enjoying a single session of baking our skin to blisters. Living at high-altitude, I hypothesize that we don’t need as much time to absorb the same amount of beneficial sunlight as we would at sea level, so I feel there is still a need for sunscreen and protective clothing, if outside for an extended period. We should all try to absorb the sun’s rays daily, but we need to do it in a healthy way.

Cooling down on the way up Uneva Peak off Vail pass.

I encourage everyone to read Jacobson’s article, as it has points both for and against protection from the UV rays of the sun. In the meantime, there is one point Jacobson makes that I would like to argue. 

In his article, Jacobsen admits that increasing sun exposure does increase the rate of skin cancer, but then claims this is ‘okay’ because, “Skin cancer kills surprisingly few people: less than 3 per 100,000 in the U.S. each year … People don’t realize this because several different diseases are lumped together under the term ‘skin cancer.’ The most common by far are basal-cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous-cell carcinomas (SCCs), which are almost never fatal” (Jacobsen 2019). The reason I’m disagreeing with this point is due to my direct experience with the “non-fatal” skin cancers. I spent 12 months working with a board-certified dermatological surgeon performing Mohs micrographic surgery, a delicate and precise surgical procedure to remove said cancers from the face, ears, scalp, fingers and toes. Although it’s true BCCs and SCCs are rarely fatal, they can cause significant damage to one’s image. Depending on the location and size of the cancer, a “non-fatal” SCC in-situ has the potential to cause extensive disfigurement of the face, ears, or eyes. I strongly believe this is not something to take lightly, and I fear that saying skin cancer is non-fatal creates a false sense of security. This can be especially dangerous in high-altitude where the sun’s rays are exceptionally stronger than the majority of the US. 

All in all, I do believe that the sun is incredibly beneficial to our health, though in moderate portions. Living in the Colorado mountains gives us more opportunities to enjoy the mountain air, along with the sun, and allows us to lead healthier lives in general. I don’t think I’m going to stop using sunscreen in the near future, but I do know I won’t be so afraid of the sun anymore. I definitely won’t be letting the sun keep me from enjoying my time here in Colorado!

Delaney Schara is a Physician Assistant student at Des Moines University in Des Moines, Iowa. She hails from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and obtained her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Delaney gained valuable experience in medicine by working as a medical scribe in Dermatology prior to beginning PA school. After completing her pediatrics rotation with Dr. Chris, Delaney will have rotations in multiple Midwestern states before her graduation in June 2020. Delaney is an avid musician who loves singing in choir, playing the flute, and playing acoustic guitar. She also enjoys tasting new blends of tea, exploring rural communities, and spending time with loved ones. 

References

Guthke, Kim. “Sun Protection at Higher Altitudes.” Boulder Medical Center, 29 August 

2018, www.bouldermedicalcenter.com/sun-protection-at-higher-altitudes/

Jacobsen, Rowan. “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine.” Outside Online, 6 June 2019

www.outsideonline.com/2380751/sunscreen-sun-exposure-skin-cancer-science?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits