When Symptoms of Altitude Sickness Spoil a Birthday Road Trip

This is not how columnist Jen Cueva envisioned spending her birthday weekend

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by Jen Cueva |

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During a recent drive up a mountainous road to the small, quaint town of Julian, California, I suddenly felt the telltale signs of altitude sickness hit me. The first was a bad headache.

We continued driving, though, because my husband, Manny, and I both thought that Julian — which is just an hour from our home — was only about 3,000 feet above sea level. (We discovered later that it’s actually over 4,000 feet above sea level.) Plus, I’d been looking forward to this trip to celebrate my birthday for a while.

Because of my pulmonary hypertension (PH), I’ve experienced altitude sickness before, such as when we were driving through the California desert or moving across the country. My PH specialist told me that people with PH each react differently to changes in altitude.

As we continued driving that day, I thought we’d descended a bit, so I wasn’t wearing my oxygen. But we were actually still ascending.

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So much for that

Once we reached Julian, we stopped for lunch. When I stood up, Manny noticed something was off and asked if I was OK. We both had hoped my body wouldn’t react so quickly to the altitude. But the altitude sickness only worsened.

I placed the oxygen cannula on my face, and we found seats at a table facing the street. It was a sunny and glorious day, perfect for people-watching, which we love to do. I eventually removed the cannula so that I could eat, but I felt so ill that I couldn’t even finish my cider. My headache pounded, and I experienced debilitating fatigue and heart palpitations.

After a while, Manny noticed that I was holding my head while we waited for some of the delicious apple pie that Julian is known for. I felt nauseous but wanted to try the boysenberry apple crumb pie. (Manny went with the apple crumb a la mode.) It was just as tasty as I’d hoped it would be, but I couldn’t finish it because I felt so sick.

After that, we decided to head down the mountain toward home. We’d planned to stop at a local cidery that piqued our interest, but decided not to. I was frustrated with my body. Why can’t it ever cooperate?

I kept my oxygen on and turned it up a little. On a positive note, my body recovered more quickly this time than it has in the past at similar altitudes.

Fellow Pulmonary Hypertension News columnist Mike Naple has shared how his experiences with altitude sickness were an essential part of his diagnosis journey. After repeatedly experiencing the same symptoms at higher altitudes, he started to connect the dots.

“It’s no secret that the symptoms of PH often disguise themselves as some other respiratory condition or pulmonary illness,” he wrote, “but I started to wonder if these episodes were strung together in my own primetime medical drama.”

He added: “It would take another four years and a hospitalization for the dots to connect to something more consequential.”

Unfortunately, his experience with high altitude pulmonary edema happened four years before he was finally diagnosed with PH.

Fortunately, my altitude sickness has never been as serious as Mike’s, but it sure wasn’t a welcome visitor on my birthday weekend.

Have you experienced altitude sickness while managing PH? What tips might you have for others? Please share in the comments below.

Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


John Joseph Huebner avatar

John Joseph Huebner

Dear Jen,
I totally understand your bout with altitude sickness. I've experienced it several times, but before being diagnosed with PH. In each occurrence, I was the only person among many to experience altitude sickness. Fast forward to three years after my PH diagnosis I came to realize that I was expending all of my energy struggling to breathe, even while on oxygen 24/7. I was living in Park City, Utah, at 7,000 ft. elevation. So I decided to do the unthinkable: Leave Park City (an extraordinarily beautiful place to live) and move closer to sea level. Now living in La Jolla, CA, with the Pacific Ocean across the street...and I can breathe and live a full life...a huge difference! Still on oxygen, but I can breathe and enjoy life!


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