A Physician Assistant Story
Jessica Lazar, PA
On February 26, 2010, Jessica Lazar, PA, summited Mt. Kilimanjaro with Dr. Ray Benza and Dr. Robert Frantz, marking the culmination of PHA’s Path to a Cure campaign (see spring 2010 Pathlight, p. 10). All three medical professionals spoke about their experiences during the keynote address at PHA’s 9th International PH Conference in June. Recently, Jessica Lazar spoke with us about her work with patients and her time on the mountain.
What initially sparked your interest in PH?
Eleven years ago I began working on the Cardiology Inpatient floors at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where I met Dr. Srinivas Murali. Heart failure and PH patients were my favorite population to work with; I fell in love with these patients. They had such a tremendous challenge to overcome with their conditions, but they were always so positive. Getting to know them and building a personal connection with them — such positive, resilient individuals — was inspiring to me.
Have you had any PH cases that stand out?
One patient who stands out to me is a woman who was on advanced PH therapy for eight years, and because of her diagnosis of breast cancer, she was not eligible for a lung transplant. She began combination therapy and was also treated successfully for her cancer. After she was cancer-free for five years, she became eligible for a lung transplant. Now, she is four years out of transplant and doing great. She is a nurse by trade and has been active in her community raising awareness about PH. She is a remarkable advocate for this disease.
What advancements in the field of PH are most exciting to you?
It is remarkably exciting to have gone from one complicated advanced therapy to entirely new classifications of medications — oral, inhaled and subcutaneous — which open the door to so many options for patients.
How did you become involved in climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro?
This was Dr. Ray Benza’s brainchild. Two years ago he climbed the Grand Tetons into the high altitude and temporarily gave himself PH. He did this to raise awareness of PH after losing a young patient. When Ray told me about his idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was awestruck at the idea of raising awareness and temporarily experiencing the symptoms of PH that my patients deal with every day.
How has the climb impacted your PH practice?
The climb has made me appreciate what my patients live with on a daily basis. I understood it conceptually before the climb, but it’s a whole different thing when you experience it yourself. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the power of one’s mind; my mountain experience brought that home to me.
On my way up the mountain, I became so sick that the guides planned to evacuate me off the mountain. Fortunately, I bounced back, but if I let any negative thoughts go through my head, I couldn’t take another step. I made the decision to think only positive thoughts. That, along with my positive team members, made a big difference in helping me to succeed.
The power of positive thinking is something that my patients demonstrate to me every day — they inspire me. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Patients who, despite everything else, find something to believe in have a better quality of life. What I experienced on Mt. Kilimanjaro reinforced that for me.
Prior to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I knew I would temporarily develop PH. I knew I would be short of breath even tying my shoes. I expected that, but I became much sicker than I expected. My oxygen saturation was at 70 percent, which I was able to monitor using the pulse oximeter donated by one of my patient’s families. Having the network of fellow climbers made a huge difference in keeping me positive, which I needed to keep going.
On summit night I started passing out, with the mountain guide by my side. I got behind and was separated from the doctors. At that moment I knew if I thought negatively, I couldn’t keep going. I started thinking positive thoughts, singing Bob Marley in my head and saying, “I know I can, I know I can.”
I could see people at the top of the mountain, and I also saw people lying on the ground right below the summit, moaning in pain. That negativity was contagious, as a group of climbers gave up. It would have been so easy to give up at that moment, but I thought to myself, “I’ve got to get up there; I won’t let Dr. Benza and Dr. Franz take that picture without me.” I did make it to the top, despite being so sick. Having hope, a goal and a purpose can make a remarkable difference in your journey, as it did for me.