Californian Jeffrey Gottfurcht Is First Person With Rheumatoid Arthritis to Conquer Everest

Jeffrey Gottfurcht the first person with RA to reach summit.

ByABC News
June 28, 2011, 12:25 PM

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.