July 5, 2011 -- As if climbing to the top of Mt. Everest weren't enough of an accomplishment, Jeffrey Gottfurcht made the feat even more incredible. On May 14, he became the first person with rheumatoid arthritis to reach the peak of the world's highest mountain.
"I tried to make the climb last year but didn't make it," he said. "But this year I did it."
The father of three, who lives in northern California, got to Nepal March 29 and reached the summit nearly seven weeks later.
The trek was brutal and Gottfurcht, 38, even went temporarily blind in his left eye because of the atmospheric conditions. In addition to the elements, he also had to battle his debilitating medical condition.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 1.3 million Americans live with the severe pain, swelling, stiffness and bone deformities associated with RA.
For many sufferers, even simple movements can be difficult, which is why doctors who treat RA find Gottfurcht's nothing short of extraordinary.
"A patient with inflammatory arthritis will have more fatigue, is likely to have anemia and will have difficulty moving the joints," said Dr. Joan Von Feldt, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Climbing Mt. Everest would involve the hands and feet and wrists, so it's incredible he was able to move his joints in this way."
Gottfurcht said, "I still have a lot of pain in my knees, hips and wrists and can't bend my wrists back, but climbing a mountain involves very different movements. It's a lot of pulling on ropes."
Gottfurcht was diagnosed with RA 10 years ago when he was 28. At first, he didn't tell anybody about his condition other than his wife and suffered in silence.
"I got very depressed and removed myself from everybody," he said.
Movements he once took for granted became almost too painful to bear. "For the first two years, I couldn't walk and couldn't even sit down because I couldn't bend my knees."
Despite the emotional and physical pain he endured, he had always been an avid mountain climber and took comfort in his lifelong hobby.
"I was angry. I was trying to say to my body, 'I have RA but I can still climb,'" he said.
After a few years, he said, his condition seemed to become more moderate. But he still suffers from chronic pain in his joints.
Early Diagnosis 'Crucial'
Experts say there are numerous drugs available that can slow disease progression and decrease the amount of damage to the joints. These drugs are most effective, they say, when a diagnosis of RA is made early.
"Early diagnosis is crucial," said Dr. Patience White, vice president for public health at the Arthritis Foundation. "If it can be treated within the first six weeks, we can put the disease in remission and never have any side effects to this disease."
Deterioration occurs rapidly with RA, so, ideally, patients will start on medication between six weeks and six months after diagnosis.
"Because of the advent of all these new medications and a more aggressive approach to treatment, the goal is remission," Pennsylvania's Von Feldt said. "It's very different than 15 years ago when the goal was to make the pain go away."
People with RA were destined to live a life of pain 10 or 15 years ago.
"In the past, there were not a lot of options for treating RA," said Dr. Ozlem Pala, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "People suffered more and had deformities or disabled joints."
Not everyone goes into remission, however, and even those who are in remission or experience few symptoms must take medication for life because RA cannot be cured. Any damage to joints is irreversible. The new crop of medications will also slow the destruction of joints in people with advanced RA.
Thanks to treatment advances, doctors say, it's possible to live a normal life. If RA is untreated, however, a person will be disabled in about five to eight years, and the risk of heart disease is increased.
Gottfurcht took methotrexate, one of the medications commonly prescribed for people with RA. But for him, staying on the drug wasn't an option. "You can't be on that when you're going to have kids," he said.
At the time of his diagnosis, he and his wife were planning to start a family and methotrexate, also used to treat cancer, could lower sperm count.
He also couldn't take some of the other drugs that are given intravenously. "I couldn't take them because since I climb so high, I didn't know what they would do to my heart."
Instead, he said, he took a different drug called Nyloxin made from cobra venom.
His inspiration to make the journey of a lifetime came from the children he saw in the rheumatologist's office. "I couldn't understand how kids could be so sick and in so much pain but still be as tough as nails," he said.
He decided to start a foundation, the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arthritis Foundation, to help children with arthritis live their own dreams the same way he lived his.
"My ultimate message is that everybody has a Mt. Everest in their life, " he said, "and no matter what condition you have, you can still go out and try things and live a life full of quality."