Telluride doctor tries to tackle altitude sickness |

Telluride doctor tries to tackle altitude sickness

Allen Best
Vail, CO Colorado

TELLURIDE, Colorado ” Peter Hackett aims to put Telluride on the map in yet another way. A physician, he has long specialized in research involving thin air.

For a number of years he worked at the base camp for climbers of Denali, a.k.a. Mt. McKinley, treating adventurers. More recently, he had the task of looking after Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones when they visited Mexico City, elevation 7,349 feet.

Now working in conjunction with the University of Colorado at Denver, he is directing the new Telluride-based Institute for Altitude Medicine. The goal is to not only treat people afflicted by the lack of oxygen, but also conduct research and offer education.

“The idea is that there are medical and health issues specific to high altitude, and there is really a need for authoritative information and research on the subject,” Hackett told The Telluride Watch.

At 5,280 feet, Denver has 17 percent less oxygen than is found at sea level. Telluride is even higher, 8,750 feet, and has 28 percent less than sea level. That lack of oxygen can stress bodies, particularly those not yet acclimated. Getting used to the altitude can take a week.

The stress is greater for some, who develop pulmonary edema, or filling of the lungs. The Telluride Medical Center each year sees about 30 cases of pulmonary edema. More rare, and often fatal, is fluid on the brain, called cerebral edema.

Problems for visitors most commonly start at 8,000 feet, or about the elevations of Vail and Aspen. At 9,000 feet, problems increase substantially.

A study done some years ago at Keystone, elevation 9,300 feet, found half of visitors get headaches. A companion study, done at Breckenridge, elevation 9,600 feet, showed that 30 percent did not do their usual activities.

At Telluride, Hackett is conducting a similar study to see how thin air affects visitors to Mountain Village, located at 9,600 feet adjacent to Telluride’s ski slopes. He is also studying the precise cause of altitude-induced headaches. One hypothesis being tested is that they result from swollen brains.

The Breckenridge study found that about 30 percent of visitors will not return because of the effects of thin air.

Hackett says people should not be put off coming to higher elevations. “I think that it is a lot like sea sickness,” he said. “Most aren’t afraid to go on a cruise, but those who get seasick will bring some form of medicine with them. The same goes for high altitude.”

Taking a drug called Diamox a day or two in advance of traveling to higher altitudes or once there are symptoms, works well, he says.

He also advises those arriving from low elevations to avoid alcohol the first day and, more generally, take it easy.

At Telluride, research will delve into the low birth-weight of infants carried at higher elevations and the connection between heart diseases and thin air.

But thin air in high places is not strictly a downside. Hackett also intends to probe whether there is correlation between longevity and higher elevations. As well, age-adjusted data have shown less heart disease at high altitudes. Some studies elsewhere in the world have found lower blood pressure .

Already, athletes seek out higher elevations for training.

Altogether, Hackett sees the institute being a potential boon for Telluride’s tourism economy, drawing not only athletes but also doctors and others interested in high-altitude fitness.

Already, the staffing a Telluride has grown. Hackett now has an associate, Dr. Jenny Hargrove, formerly of Stanford, as well as various residents and medical students.

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