March 19, 2012 – Hanging several feet up in the air by a rope and no way to turn back, Raymond Benza, M.D., took a leap of faith and jumped over a large gap from one side of the mountain he was climbing to another. But he missed.
His body slammed against hard rock of the Grand Teton, in Wyoming, and he saw stars. In the midst of confusion, pain and fear, all he could hear was his climbing trainer’s shouts, instructing him.
“Trust me, grab on the rope, and don’t look down!” the trainer yelled. “Don’t look back or too far ahead. We’re going to take one step at a time.”
Benza, a 1989 UF College of Medicine graduate, realized then that what the trainer told him was exactly what he tells his patients who suffer from a rare disease called pulmonary hypertension. The disease affects 200,000 people worldwide and is characterized by continuous high blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. That results in an enlarged heart that can also lose its ability to pump.
There is no cure for this disease.
Benza, a professor of medicine at Temple University and program director of advanced heart failure, transplant, mechanical circulatory support and pulmonary vascular diseases at the West Penn Allegheny Health System in Pittsburgh, says it was one of his patients from years ago who suffered from pulmonary hypertension who served as the catalyst for his mountain climbing.
“I would come into her room every day, knowing she was dying and feeling upset that there was nothing I could do,” said Benza. “She’d sit me down and tell me it’s okay that I can’t help everyone, that I can’t move every mountain.”
His patient’s reference to mountains engraved a powerful image in Benza’s head, transforming the mountains from an obstacle to an opportunity. He decided that he would climb a mountain to raise awareness and money for pulmonary hypertension research.
Benza and a colleague searched for mountaineering opportunities and landed on an advertisement in 2008 about Grand Teton, the highest mountain in Wyoming.
“The ad looked like a nice walk up the mountain, so we signed up for it,” he said, laughing. “But we were wrong. As soon as we got there, the trainer had us sign informed consent forms and brought us out on the rocks to begin a required crash course on mountain climbing.”
Despite the surprise, Benza and his colleague made it to the summit of the Grand Teton and raised $25,000 from supporters for pulmonary hypertension research.
Benza didn’t stop there. He rallied a group two years later to tackle a greater height—Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
Benza and his climbing partners, two medical colleagues, began training for their six-day climb. It involved climbing 18 floors of stairs several times a day at the hospital.
Benza was determined to make it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where he knew the higher altitude would cause symptoms similar to those of pulmonary hypertension, including shortness of breath, dizziness and chest pain.
“As physicians, it’s important that we know how our patients feel on a daily basis,” Benza said. “It helps us to be more empathetic and understand their pain.”
Benza’s symptoms worsened as he got closer to the top. Cheered on by family, colleagues and patients who called via satellite phone, he made it to the top. This time, they raised $130,000, part of which came from walk-a-thons that were held in Pittsburgh during his climb.
“It was a mind blowing experience,” he said. “I felt like the pulmonary hypertension community really came together through this experience.”
Benza always knew he wanted to go into medicine. Originally from Bronx, NY, his family moved to a Daytona Beach when Benza was in high school. He volunteered and worked at local hospitals for many years.
“I just really loved the hospital atmosphere,” he said. “I guess I caught the ‘fever’ then.”
The UF College of Medicine was an easy choice for Benza after he earned his undergraduate degree from Emory University. UF was close to home and most of his friends were also headed there.
The first physician in his family, Benza planned to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. But after speaking with Hugh M. “Smiley” Hill, M.D., the late, much-loved associate dean for student and alumni affairs, he decided to pursue internal medicine instead.
“Dr. Hill asked me a lot of questions about who I am,” Benza said. “He understood my goals academically and how important family was to me. We decided together that internal medicine offered what I needed. This decision changed the course of my life and career. Part of my success, both personally and professionally I owe to this early vital decision that Dr. Hill helped me make.”
Benza, who has always loved working with his hands, was immediately attracted to cardiology, especially the cognitive aspect of thoracic transplantation and the hands-on work it involved.
Guided by his mentors and other faculty members at the UF College of Medicine, Benza became a highly skilled cardiologist and internationally recognized expert in pulmonary vascular diseases and cardiac transplantation.
“I remember we talked about the dream of artificial hearts and mechanical circulatory support for patients back at UF when I was a student,” said Benza, whose team recently performed the first total artificial heart transplant in western Pennsylvania. “It blows my mind to think that through my medical career, so many new devices and technologies have developed to provide more choices in treating these very ill patients and that I would actually be involved in the implementation of many of them.”
A committee member of the Thoracic Board of the United Network for Organ Sharing, Benza and other physicians helped modify the Lung Allocation Score that ensures fair distribution of lungs for patients with end stage lung diseases, like pulmonary hypertension.
“This is one of the proudest things I’ve done,” he said. “Based on this new algorithm, pulmonary hypertension patients who usually are placed low on the waiting list were able to have a better chance of getting a transplant.”
Benza’s work and dedication to patients has not gone unnoticed. He was recently named Physician of the Year by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, an honor bestowed upon him by his colleagues for his work with UNOS, dedication to his patients and for his advancements in the field.
In addition, Benza, whose family is of Italian descent, was made a knight of the Royal House of Savoy, an ancient knighthood established by the once royal family of Italy and sanctioned by the Vatican in the Middle Ages. The honor is given to those who demonstrate eminence in public service, science, art and charitable works. He shared this honor with the Rev. Timothy Michael Dolan, the new American cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
“It was a wonderful experience and honor to my family,” the knight said. “There were no swords involved but I received a medal and wore the ceremonial robes.”
He credits all of his accomplishments to his wife, Edwina Chan, a UF College of Pharmacy alumna, and his son, Evan.
“Nothing I accomplish can be done without the support of my family,” he said. “Without them, it’s not possible.”