Heart patient has new heights to scale

After his "heart event," Rob Gillio of Lancaster got serious, started exercising, and took on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Pulmonologist Rob Gillio was invited on the climb with two other patients; they were "The Heartthrobs."

Chronic neck pain had bothered him for years, and now, during walks with his wife, Rob Gillio was experiencing shortness of breath. He was in his mid-50s, a Mayo Clinic-trained pulmonologist whose father had died of heart disease. He knew the symptoms well, and yet he was reluctant to acknowledge the obvious.

"It might be angina," he remarked to his wife, Beth, referring to the discomfort caused by an oxygen-starved heart.

Beth urged him to see a cardiologist immediately. A treadmill stress test and catheterization showed that his left anterior descending artery, the so-called widowmaker, was 99 percent blocked. A stent was inserted to open the clogged blood vessel.

"I was in total denial," says Gillio, 56, as he reflects on the episode, which occurred in August 2008.

Since then, Gillio, who lives in Lancaster, has recovered physically but not psychologically.

"I feel more fragile and vulnerable," he admits. For a while, he was afraid to fly. ("If the stent occludes, I'm dead.") He plotted trips so he'd always be within 30 minutes of a medical center.

He takes blood thinners and adheres to an exemplary diet. His genes are immutable, but one area he could control, and where he needed improvement, was exercise.

Gillio's default gear is overdrive. He's a compulsive inventor, entrepreneur, problem-solver. Instead of playing golf, he hatches ideas, collects patents. His passion is education in general, health education in particular. "Sick kids don't learn," he says.

About 10 years ago, he changed careers, leaving clinical practice to launch InnerLink, which promotes healthy living via the Internet. The Health eTools for Schools program offers curricular support to school nurses and teachers in Pennsylvania. The aim of another initiative, the Student Health Force (www.studenthealthforce.com), "an online university for middle and high school kids," is to build a national army of juvenile health educators to fight smoking, obesity, and heart disease by creating "a culture of wellness where it's cool to make a healthy choice." The group's slogan: Learn it, live it, share it.

A public-service junkie, Gillio volunteered at ground zero after the World Trade Center attacks and in New Orleans after Katrina. He is also the father of five daughters.

With such a busy life, something had to give, and what gave was exercise. Gillio rarely made time for it, and over the years, his waist expanded. After his "heart event," he decided to mend his ways. An additional incentive came six months ago when he was invited to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,340 feet, it's Africa's highest peak.

The invitation came from a father-son team determined to prove, as Gillio was, that there's life after heart disease. Paul Magelli Sr., 79, an Illinois businessman, had his first heart attack at age 42 and survived. His twin brother, Peter, also had a heart attack, and did not. Magelli has been in cardiac rehab for 37 years and has managed to stay alive by developing collateral circulation - detours around closed arteries - through regular exercise. His son and climbing companion, Paul Jr., 46, also suffered a heart attack at 42.

To prepare for the challenge, Gillio began exercising for an hour or two a day. He strode briskly on a treadmill, angled at 15 degrees, and began lifting weights. A Lancaster hotel became his substitute mountain. On weekdays, he climbed 20 flights of stairs five times.

The exertion paid off. Gillio gained muscle and stamina, and lost 45 pounds.

The climb took place early last month, and Kilimanjaro was a mighty test. The trio, nicknamed "The Heartthrobs," began scaling the peak as soon as they arrived, with no time to acclimate to the altitude. By the second day, Gillio's head began aching, a sign of acute mountain sickness. At the high base camp, at about 16,000 feet, Gillio ordered Paul Sr., whose heart rate was rising alarmingly, to stop and go down. At 18,400 feet, Paul Jr., his lips blue, too weary to take another step, and at risk of collapsing from high-altitude pulmonary edema, also turned around.

Battling hallucinations, Gillio ventured higher, halting after every step to suck traces of oxygen from the thin air. With a whiteout cloaking his vision, he reached the rim of the volcanic cone about 600 feet below the Uhuru summit. Yielding to prudence, he decided to descend, but nevertheless felt triumphant.

Climbing a mountain is a metaphor for achievement, and Gillio, ever the educator, turned the expedition into an Internet teaching opportunity. At www.myclimb.org, schoolkids could follow the ascent, pausing at virtual base camps to learn about various health topics, and tracking progress toward their own goals.

"The idea is to prove to kids that there can be life without heart disease," Gillio says. "Just as I proved to myself that there can be a tremendous life after heart disease."


Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.