Category Archives: Medicine

Follow Dr. Chris around the world for insight from a physician’s perspective

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.**

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

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.

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

Wilderness Medicine & Medicine for our Wilderness

Our mission of advocacy and community building continues at our little mountain clinic as the aspen leaves have just begun to turn, and our passion for high altitude research has brought us to a unique and timely junction between the Wilderness Medicine Society‘s conference in Crested Butte, Colorado that Dr. Chris attended, and a recent conversation with the founder of The Sustainable Hiker, Summit County resident and voice of the Wilderness, Tom Koehler.

As health care providers in the high country, we see patients experiencing all kinds of reactions to the extreme altitude, residents and visitors alike. Even those who aren’t out climbing fourteeners or skiing can often experience symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Needless to say, we also see our share of injuries in the more adventurous outdoor-inclined. We ourselves make a point of regularly venturing out into the celebrated Colorado forests to experience this demanding environment first-hand, and it is not always without incident, in spite of our expertise and careful planning, and these past Spring and Summer seasons have been no exception, between hut trips, fourteeners, camping, kayaking, stand up paddle-boarding, cycling, lifting, yoga, and running at 9000′ and above! It is our due diligence and life’s work to share our experiences and the valuable research being done across the globe with you.

Dr. Chris and her contemporaries have returned from the Wilderness Medicine conference this year with some good and bad news. First, the good news:

Dr. Chris receives some impromptu wilderness medicine for a scrape on a recent trip to Harry Gates hut.
  1. There are no brown recluse spiders in Colorado, according to Kennon Heard, MD (although Dr. Chris’s sister-in-law disagreed with this expert’s statement).
  2. Most snake bites do not inject venom, so anti-venom treatment is only indicated if symptoms are noted. The anti-venom is very expensive, but treatment of the wound is important in order to control the cascade of events set off by the venom, starting with a diffuse reaction similar to a severe anaphylaxis, followed by neurotoxic fasciculations of muscles, along with a necrotizing wound causing pain and swelling at the site of the bite and ending in a full disruption of every clotting factor and cell in the body. The clotting disruption does not lead to hemorrhage. In layman’s terms, most snake bites aren’t shown to lead to symptoms, but should you experience any symptoms, things could escalate to life-and-death very quickly.
  3. Another useful talk was given by a specialist in foot care, Patrick Burns, MD, DiMM (Diploma in Mountain Medicine): He recommends wearing two pairs of acrylic socks and protecting areas of friction with paper tape. He rejected the ointments and gels as unproven. Don’t use duct tape, as it damages the skin, and moleskin tends to be too thick. Blisters should be left intact, although consider draining if pain is intense. Healing takes 120 hours.
  4. For accidents and injuries, studies show that irrigating wounds with water is as good as saline, and a well-filled Camel-bak makes an excellent splint for fractures. Pain was addressed by Alex Kranc, MD, FAWN (Fellow Academy of Wilderness Medicine): doses of acetaminophen 1000 mg and ibuprofen 400 mg or Naprosyn given together or alternately are as good as stronger prescription medicines in most cases. A system of acupuncture without needles that is light and compact has been shown to help with pain in combat situations (where, incidentally, many of these techniques and tools are developed). Think of a sticky patch that you apply to a pressure point behind your ears.
  5. Linda Keyes, MD discussed women at altitude, including some helpful tips for dealing with menstruation on wilderness treks: menstrual cups catch the flow and can be washed and used over again; taking the active birth control pills continuously will delay the onset of bleeding. Another piece of good news: bears (and sharks) are not attracted by menstrual blood.
  6. In a discussion about training for altitude events, Aaron Campbell, MD, MHS, DiMM, FAWM reviewed the role of sleeping in hyperbaric chambers or tents, which showed a mild improvement in adaptation. The best way to prepare for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he said, is to climb a fourteener every week for 6 weeks!
A slide on improvising a Camel-bak bladder as a splint at the 2019 Wilderness Medicine conference in Crested Butte, Colorado.

The most exciting and spellbinding parts of the conference, according to Dr. Chris, were the descriptions of rescues from mountains, crevices, and ledges from Alaska to Boulder.

Now for the bad news:

Michael Loso, PhD gave a fascinating talk on the science of glaciology and water acquisition research in Alaska. Poo on the glacier gets buried and frozen, and lasts for years, if not decades, and they have even found traces of E. coli around certain base camps too high for drinking standards. This obviously can significantly compromise water quality, even at higher elevations, where we imagine the water from snowmelt is of the most pristine quality, a subject I also speculated about with Tom Koehler. This is why you should carry a proven filtration system. Tom’s preference, when possible, is an 8-minute boil.

Can you see the Rocky Mountain big horn sheep?

But what about the Wilderness itself? Colorado’s Continental Divide plays a major role in where our water goes, how it gets there, and in what condition. Sixty-eight percent of Colorado’s forests are federally owned and protected, one of the highest in the nation. With the continuing rise in residence and tourism, increased traffic through our precious forests is a double-edged sword.

“Summit County is really a microcosm, but an example of a larger issue facing Colorado: exponential growth, both in permanent population, as well as increase in guests to our land. So that, on a high level, has water managers scratching their heads, wondering, ‘How are we going to deliver the water we need for businesses and human health?’,” explains Koehler. “Summit is unique, particularly in the water issue, because we supply a significant amount of runoff into the Colorado River at the headwaters in Kremmling. And that arguably touches an estimated 40 million people all the way to California,” giving a rough estimate.

“A lot of Colorado is struggling to maintain their trails. We have about 430 miles of trails of all uses. In this county, we have a lot of trails to maintain, and arguably, that’s our first line of defense against erosion into our streams. It’s just a cascading effect (pardon the pun),” he says. “Most every park and forest in the West is under strain for maintenance. We just happen to be the most recreated, visited in the country, with 4.4 million recreational visits per year.”

Koehler’s passion for conservation and preservation of our forests and watershed was fostered in natural forests of Shenandoah Park, where he frequently escaped to while working as a research director for a wealth management firm in Washington, DC, while also dreaming of a career as a competitive skier in Park City, Utah.

“Once the opportunity arose to head out West with a couple of pennies in my pocket, I took it, and my move to Summit County was transformational in that I saw nature first-hand, right outside my door.” It transformed his outlook on how it benefits us all, even economically. He started volunteering with the Summit Huts Association, which provided him with “tremendous opportunity to really be in the backcountry”, the High Country Conservation Center, where he “really carved out an ethos for [himself] of stewardship”, and was even named the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District Volunteer Recruiter of the Year for 2015.

The Sustainable Hiker was founded as a response to recognizing that the efforts on a lot of fronts being made by organizations wasn’t as widely broadcast to both locals and guests. It’s mission: to be the leading voice for protecting Nature.

“I see the Sustainable Hiker as part of a number of organizations from the stewardship to the climate change advocacy groups to the local conservation groups, where you can find out what’s going on with your land and water here in Summit County.

“A healthier forest provides me with cleaner air and cleaner, more reliable water. It’s taken for granted. Kind of like a factory that turns out profits, it has to be maintained to continue yielding as high a profit.” Spoken like a true financier.

Setting off through the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness below Buffalo Mountain in Summit County, Colorado.

So what is one thing Colorado residents can do, immediately, to forward this movement of sustainability?

“Immediately, wherever you reside or are visiting, look at a nature or forest stewardship project, or educational events related to our forest or nature, and sign up.”

What is one thing we can stop doing that will contribute to the preservation and conservation of our forests and water?

“Stop, right now, taking nature for granted. Because we need it.

“Stop relying on your car for everything.

“Stop talking. In Nature … our time in Nature is a time to slow down everything, including our conversations. For two reasons: for the joy and peace we experience listening to the birds, and it gives the wildlife a break, too.”

Below treeline on the way up to Harvard and Columbia peaks outside of Buena Vista, Colorado.

I understand his point. While living in Japan, I learned a word, “shin-rin-yoku” (森林浴), literally translating to “forest bath”. The idea revolving around the practice is that by walking through the trees and water in the forest, you exchange ions with it, providing your body with a balancing recalibration. I believe this is also a vital part of high-altitude health.

The Sustainable Hiker provides insight into Koehler’s mission, at sustainablehiker.com, where you will also find information on organizations, events, and his newsletter, Nature’s Beacon, drawing attention to conservation projects you can get involved in.

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.

What’s Going On in La Paz?

The 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium was held this year in La Paz, Bolivia, in February and March. La Paz, sitting at 11,942 ft. (3640 m), is home to one of the world’s leading researchers of the effects of chronic hypoxia, Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, with whom Colorado’s own Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos was able to meet with during her attendance of the symposium. You can refer to her previous article on the gathering of experts from over 16 countries for her own account of Dr. Zubieta-Calleja’s impressive work.

Below is the renowned Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s own account on video of his introduction to the experience of hypoxia and altitude with Dr. Zubieta-Calleja.

Always keep in mind, there are many physiological reactions going on when your body and brain are at altitude, and the higher the altitude, the more extreme the effects. Benefitting from a hypoxic environment isn’t as simple as staying hydrated. When we talk about chronic hypoxia, we are typically referring to a population who have spent many years in a high altitude environment.

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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.

Technology in Health Care: Interview with Family Nurse Practitioner Tara Taylor

After over a decade of serving pediatric patients in the high country communities of Colorado as Ebert Children’s Clinic, we opened up our health care practice to serve the needs of the adult population several years ago. As Dr. Chris can attest to, the world of health care has grown and evolved incredibly since she first opened up her practice in Colorado in 2000, and we all continue to learn from the providers we welcome to our team as well as the students we mentor.

Family Nurse Practitioner Tara Taylor.

This past year, we’ve had the pleasure of having Tara Taylor, FNP on our staff. She’s brought a wealth of knowledge and unique experience from having practiced on a medical campus much, much larger than our little mountain clinic, and her insight into everything from patient care to our own high altitude research projects continues to be an invaluable asset to both our practice and our community. She was so gracious one afternoon to have a chat with me between patients:

How did you find yourself in Colorado’s high country health care community?

So, I have actually lived here since 2004, so I’ve lived here 15 years. I came out here for 6 mos to ski, and stayed for 15 years. I found myself loving it, bought my first house and decided to stay out here. I’ve actually commuted down to Denver all this time, because I had originally started in New Jersey in 2002 in Critical Care. So when I moved out here I wanted to be in the mountains, but I also couldn’t do Critical Care up here at that time. So I decided to commute down to Denver for three 12-hours shifts a week, and then live up here four days a week. So I had an apartment in Denver … when I went back to NP school, my goal was to work and live in my own community. I think that’s huge for me … and not only be serving the population of Denver, but to be serving the people of my actual community.

How long had you been practicing in Denver?

Since 2005, because I worked 6 months at Keystone Clinic, so I’ve been in Denver working for 14 years  prior to this in the ICU. And I’ve worked at Children’s hospital in the pediatric ICU, burn ICU’s, bone marrow transplant, open-heart surgery, neuro-trauma, multi-system trauma, all of it.

How is it different working up here, for a small clinic, at that?

This is a huge change … I’m still working down there once a month, so I get to go down and play and enjoy that type of intensity. But at the same time, coming back here, I think that the critical care aspect … it still plays a role here. And in my letter, when they said, “Why do you want to go from [being] an ICU nurse to family practice?” … I said for so long, I’ve seen patients in the ICU [whose] admission or … critical portion of their admission could have been avoided if they had better focus on primary care and had their needs met. If they had been on the right medications, if someone had spent the time — and sometimes it’s because of their own compliance — but with adequate primary care, we’re avoided what I was seeing in the ICU. 

Now, being in primary care, I get the stimulation I need from the independence of it, making these decisions, and I really enjoy finding out what’s going on with the patient, deciding what tests to run, and getting back these results and being able to properly refer them. I enjoy the time that I’m able to have with those patients here at a private practice. So each patient gets the time that they need to be properly cared for. 

And I’m just seeing extremely sick patients. I’m not seeing a lot of sore throats and earaches, unless you’re 2 years old; besides that, the adults have really complex diagnoses that require a lot of thought. And in its own respect, it’s critical to me.

Great segue: what are the greatest challenges you’ve seen practicing up here?

I think some of the biggest challenges that I have seen up here is limitation of services. That’s why this clinic is bringing up Nephrology, … [expanding] mental health services here, and then, to bring in … pain management specialty, and give them a place to practice … It’s really hard for these additional specialties. We have Cardiology up here, we have Pulmonology, but some of the smaller things like Rheumatology for rheumatoid arthritis, for osteoporosis and kidneys … how do you establish your practice up here? So hopefully, as focused as [Ebert Family Clinic] is in the community about being able to provide the care we want for our patients …  we’ll be able to get that door open for those specialties and help them establish their practice up here, which is our goal.

How do you get connected to these services like Genomind?

[This patient] came to me with Genomind. I had not heard of that before. He said, “I got on the right medications because this genetic testing gave [Compass Health] the ability to treat me properly.” [Certain health care providers in Denver] require it, almost, for every patient walking in their door as a prerequisite to help them make medication decisions. 

Genomind is a swab in the cheek. I think it’s huge, because we’re not able to “draw” neurochemicals. We’re not able to draw your blood and say, “oh, look, you’re deficient in serotonin.” Because that’s not an option, what’s the best way for us to figure out what’s the best medication for you? Because medications are very specific to what they’re treating. So the only thing we’ve been able to do for the last decade is to guess; to put you on something, and if it doesn’t work, then we know that’s not the thing. And that’s a terrible process, because it leads patients to trying five medications, over a ten-year period, and finally we get them on the right thing. But how frustrating that is for patients; they lose confidence in their providers, they lose confidence in the system, they feel neglected, they feel frustrated. And to have that stamina to even go through that process … I think we have a lot of patients drop off. [They] end up saying, “Forget it. Medications don’t work for me.” Then [they] become non-functional … their quality of life is hindered by their [unwillingness] to spend ten years trying five medications.

That is not the best process. And I think the people that went ahead and engineered Genomind said, “What else can we do? What if we went back to genetics? What if we went back to genes?” We can swab a 1-day old infant or a 95-year old man, and we are going to get their genetics. And when they did the Human Genome Project, and we got our entire genetic profile as human beings, the science behind Genomind was they were able to take anyone who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, people who are known bipolar, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, took their DNA … laid them over each other, and said, “What gene is predominant in all these patients?”

So they were actually able to use hundreds of thousands of mental health patients to establish what genes these were that led to the cause of their mental illness. So now we’re able to send off DNA with a swab in the cheek. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s what we have.

Is this better than nothing? There’s so much controversy about this test. How can you think this is controversial when you come from a science background as a provider, as a physician. You’ve got this, or you have nothing to guide you for the mental health of these patients. If we have this over nothing, I will take this.

[Genomind testing] is not only [about] mental health disorders, but also [for] people [suffering from] eating disorders, difficulty losing weight, ADHD, alcohol addiction and propensity for opioid addiction. It would identify what patients we may never want to start on narcotics if at all possible. It tells us, “Don’t start this patient on this particular drug because they’re at risk for gaining weight with this drug, like as an atypical antipsychotic.” It would tell us which medications an alcoholic would respond to best, if they were wanting to quit drinking and needed medication assistance. We have a lot of kids who seem like they’re ADHD, but really they have signs of anxiety and depression as well. And it’s our job to distinguish [whether] it’s the ADHD that’s causing the depression and anxiety, or it’s the depression and anxiety that’s causing the inability to focus? It’s absolutely fascinating! I want the community to know that we’re offering that here at the clinic.

Is Genomind available to children?

We can test anyone of any age. We can swab the cheek of a one-day old. I actually had a mom in here that said she was tested positive for both genes for the lack of ability to metabolize L-methylfolate, which causes bipolar disorder or mood instability. She came in here with her 4-month old son and said, “When can I get him tested to know?”

So I actually asked Genomind, and Genomind said you could test a brand new newborn baby, which at some point may be the standard of practice!

But at this point, it’s hard to want to test that child, because we’re not able to treat that child [without symptoms]. Once that child becomes 6 or 8 years old, and they are having mood instability, they are showing signs of some sort of mental illness, we do realize we are able to identify this in children. We don’t need to wait until people are 18 to say they must have a mental illness. We are identifying that in the behavior of hyperactive two and three year olds, and we’re seeing them grow up to be bipolar adults. So we are seeing early signs and symptoms of mental illness in these children. 

Could we test a 6-year old who is showing signs of something and have them be positive for these genes and be able to supplement them with L-methylfolate or an approved psychiatric medication in the pediatric population based on their genetics? This is absolutely going in that direction. Genomind said they’re 100% approved for adult and pediatric testing.

How do you find balance for yourself and maintain a healthy lifestyle?

Tara with Dr. Chris (center) and Kristen Duffy, A/GNP, at Ebert Family Clinic.

Working at this clinic actually provides me with the exact hours I need to have good work-life balance. That’s extremely important to Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos. When I started working here, she said, “What are your husband’s days off?” And I said, “Sunday-Monday,” she said, “Okay, well you’re not working Sunday-Monday then.” I just honestly couldn’t believe it, that my happiness was that important to her. I work reasonable hours. [Dr. Chris] provides me with the days off that will match my husband’s. I have great quality of life due to my husband. He’s an amazing person, wonderful and spirited, and we get along great. So we have that, and we have our two dogs, and we live a comfortable life up here. We love to do all the great stuff that Summit Countiers do: snowboarding, hiking, biking, camping, just getting outside in general together and playing with our dogs. And that’s what’s most important.

What have been your greatest takeaways from working in Summit County so far?

I think it’s running into that patient at the supermarket who, I know in the back of my head I have their diabetes controlled. To know that I’m specifically helping patients in my community. That I’m doing yoga next to someone [whose] blood pressure is controlled now because of me. I think that’s something really special and it’s not something that I had before when I worked in Denver, and I would come home and I would never see those people again. And then, having the opportunity in this clinic to deal with so many pediatric patients, since this was originally a pediatric clinic [before] expanding to adult services as well, which is amazing. But the amount of pediatrics in this clinic really improves both my exposure to every age group. I love kids. To have patients hug me in this office who have had a very challenging diagnosis … that “thank you” from patients is something I cannot replace.

Tara continues to be a passionate advocate for mental, women’s and sexual health, and a valuable resource as a health care practitioner. Ebert Family Clinic is proud to have her.

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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.