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UT Neurology Chair Meets Challenges in Research, On Mountaintops


Off the mountain slope, renowned neurologist James Grotta, M.D., spends his time researching new treatments and saving the lives of people who have suffered a stroke.

On the mountain slope, he’s just another human being, fighting the bitter cold and altitude fatigue to put one foot in front of the other.

The sum of the two is a man in balance, an admitted risk taker who tests himself both professionally and physically in ways that enhance each other.

UT-Houston Neurology Chair James Grotta, M.D., celebrates reaching the top of Mexico’s highest mountain.

“We push ourselves in so many ways intellectually with patients, getting grants and writing papers,” said Grotta, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston and one of the first researchers in the country to study the clot-buster tPA. “This is purely physical: you against the mountain and the elements. Obviously, there’s a danger but the mountains I climb are not technically dangerous mountains. In work, I take risks. That’s part of doing innovative research. But they’re calculated risks.”

Grotta, an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys skiing, diving and sailing, became a hiking and climbing enthusiast during his neurology residency at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver in the mid 1970s.

“There’s very little opportunity to get close to nature in Houston,” said Grotta, director of Neurology Service and co-director of the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center.
“I made a deal with myself when I came here that I would periodically get away and do things.”

Grotta, who has twice run the Houston marathon and recently qualified to run the Boston marathon, presently runs up to 35 miles a week. Always looking for adventure vacations, he has trekked through Nepal, hiked in Alaska, done medical relief work in Afghanistan and Peru, and ridden a mountain bike from Durango, Colo., to Moab, Utah.

It was during the trip to Alaska that he first thought about climbing mountains after seeing people scale Mount McKinley. In 1990, he started with Washington’s Mount Rainier, considered a good mountain for beginning climbers.

Since then he has climbed Ecuador’s Cotopaxi, 19,348 feet; Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,300 feet; Argentina’s highest mountain, Aconcagua, 22,800; and his latest, Mexico’s highest mountain, Orizaba, 18,500 feet.

The last climb before reaching the summit usually begins at 1 a.m. Since the weather gets worse as the day wears on, the goal is to reach the top no later than 10 a.m. and then be back down from the summit by noon.

Grotta, a busy researcher, says climbing mountains like Mexico’s Orizaba helps put things in perspective.

“There’s a part of me that comes alive that doesn’t anywhere else,” Grotta said. “It’s a test of physical strength and mental determination and it’s not easy in the sense of altitude. But there’s a beauty. It’s really cool to climb and see the stars and moon and the outline of the mountain.

In 2003, he faced his most challenging climb, Aconcagua. He trained by wearing a weighted backpack while running the stairs at Rice Stadium. But there’s no way to acclimate to the altitude in Houston, so he allowed three weeks for the trip and arrived early.

He lost 15 pounds during the climb, which took 10 days to reach the summit, while carrying 40 to 50 pounds of gear.

“It was easier to do when I was younger. I don’t have any body fat and when you get cold, it saps your energy,” he said. “You get short of breath, nauseated and you don’t feel like eating. You have to force yourself to drink. At Aconcagua, it took me six breaths for every step I took. When you’re up that high, it’s very alien and unfriendly.”

To stay safe, Grotta relies on guides who know the mountain and can help climbers stay on the trail and pace themselves.

He enjoyed his latest climb on Orizaba late last year as much as his first climb 17 years ago.

“It’s always emotional. You’re so focused on the task, and your mind wanders and helps you put things into perspective,” he said. “There’s a whole part of existence that you don’t get in touch with if you don’t get out there. It just reminds me that I’m alive.”


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