Climbing Everest with Rheumatoid Arthritis: An Interview with Jeffrey Gottfurcht

Patient Expert

Jeffrey Gotfurcht is climbing seven mountains to raise awareness about Juvenile Arthritis (JA), as well as raising funds to make dreams and wishes come true for kids with JA. Jeff has rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

When he was first diagnosed in 2001, Jeff "went into a shell, was timid, didn't talk to anyone." His disease was "progressing very fast, I got a grim prognosis" and the medications he tried gave him severe side effects. This isolation lasted four years, but when he started talking to others about his illness, he found that his "RA got better, sort of settled down and stopped progressing" and he was able to go back to his old love of climbing again. "It mad me able to come out and start to help people again."

Creating the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arthritis Foundation

As he started looking outward and trying to explain this illness to others, Jeff ran up against the same problem that so many with RA do. "People have trouble understanding - just because you look well, doesn't mean you are well." Jeff, himself the father of three children ages two, four and six, noticed the children in his rheumatologists office. "I knew there was a major problem with public awareness about this disease, especially with kids. Every single person I spoke to did not believe me when I said that kids get arthritis. That inspired me. There are 300,000 kids in the US with JA that are sort of forgotten. What can we do to help them?" The answer to that question is the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arthritis Foundation.

Funded by private donations, the Foundation fulfills dreams and wishes for kids with JA. Children between ages four and 21 are eligible and requests for dreams are made by the kids themselves, their families and pediatric rheumatologists. The kind of dreams that are made real range from a trip to Disneyland, meeting a celebrity - recently, Miley Cyrus spent the day with a youngster - computers and another recent dream was funding a four-year college degree. As well, every time a dream or wish is fulfilled, a portion of the cost goes to research into JA.

To help bring awareness about JA and the Foundation, Jeff decided to climb some mountains.

Climbing Everest

Jeff has "loved to climb since I was a little kid. My heroes were the climbers from the 1940s and 50s and I've been obsessed with mountains." Not surprisingly, Mount Everest featured large in his imagination. He tells the story of how 14 years ago, on their first date, Jeff and his wife-to-be "went to see an Everest move. I told her 'I'm going to climb that someday' and 14 years later, I did."

It took six months of training and Jeff has discovered that his will to climb seems to "help keep the RA at bay, that training helps. It's sort of a catch-22 - it hurts to train and climb, but it also hurts to sit and do nothing." Jeff chooses to climb. He does so without the benefit of disease modifying medication, as "they are not tested at high altitudes." Instead, he uses Nyloxin, an over-the-counter pain reliever made from cobra venom (Nutra Pharma Corporation, the makers of Nyloxin, sponsored the Everest climb).

Earlier this year, Jeff's own dream came true when he climbed Mount Everest. He experienced two flares during the climb, but was lucky to escape some of the more dangerous side effects of high altitude. One member of his team got High Altitude Cerebral Edema and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and "was lucky to make it back down." On May 14, 2011, during a windstorm that blinded him temporarily in his left eye when the cornea froze, Jeff stood on the summit of Mount Everest. "It was magical," Jeff says, "I knew we had done something great."

The Future

Jeff has a plan for the next four or five years. His Seven Summits plan is to reach the summits of seven mountains. Two have been completed already - Everest and earlier Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. Another five mountains are left and Jeff's next climb is in January, in Argentina where he will go up Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America.

When asked what the future holds, Jeff said "we are driven to put JA and RA on the map and we're not going to stop until there is no more need for dreams."

I believe he might just do it.

Lene is the author of the award-winning blog The Seated View.