Reaching New Heights

Reaching New Heights

Paul Magelli stood on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this month, at age 79 one of the oldest people to climb the mountain.

He was at the highest camp on the way to the 19,340-foot summit. It was desolate and barren, and the feeling was of being all alone. But the vividness of the stars was “outstanding,” Magelli said, and, “It was very satisfying. It was a reaffirmation of what you’re capable of doing.”

It was something he never would have imagined doing as a younger man.

“My horizon of what I thought I could accomplish was very narrow,” he said of his view on life when he was in his late 40s and 50s.

Magelli -- who is senior director of the University of Illinois Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership -- watched his identical twin die of a heart attack while playing basketball at age 45. He soon discovered two of the three major arteries in his heart were entirely blocked.

His doctor prescribed a conservative approach that did not include a bypass or stents. Magelli lost 60 pounds, began exercising and went on medication. Eventually, his body developed collateral circulation, in which smaller blood vessels provide an alternate route for blood supply around a blockage.

Still, Magelli had a fear of pushing himself too hard, wondering if he would push himself into having a heart attack like his brother.

“What I became aware of was I was a prisoner of this fear,” Magelli said. “I was afraid to leave home, afraid to be away from my cardiologist, afraid to get on a plane.”

Gradually, through exercise and therapy, he regained confidence in his health. He began running after he learned about his heart condition, and he ran his first marathon in 1988. He took up downhill skiing at age 65. And he and his son, Paul Magelli Jr., climbed for 22 days in the Andes, including a visit to Machu Picchu, for Paul Sr.’s 70th birthday.

They talked then about someday climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But Paul Jr. had his own health issues. He also had heart disease and had a quadruple bypass at age 44.

The father finally said to his son, “Before I get much older, are we going to do this?” The son answered, “Let’s do it.”

Magelli Sr. invited Rob Gillio to join them. Gillio is a doctor who created an online health education program for young people. Magelli Sr. is on his board of directors of his company, and Gillio says he sees the older man as a mentor.

Like the Magellis, Gillio has heart disease. For three years, he developed a pain in his neck every time he got off an airplane and began carrying his bag through the terminal. He chalked it up to a stiff neck. Then he began suffering shortness of breath on walks around his neighborhood. His wife convinced him to have a treadmill test, and he discovered one of his arteries was almost totally blocked.

“I’m a pulmonary critical care doctor. I’ve been trained in treating heart disease,” Gillio said. “I’m teaching it, and even I was in denial.”

He had a stent put into his neck and hasn’t felt any pain since. But like Magelli, he also was afraid to do certain things.

He said Magelli has been an example to him of living a fulfilling life after heart disease. He was happy to literally follow in Magelli’s footsteps on Kilimanjaro, and free himself from using heart disease as an excuse for not doing things he feared his body might not be able to handle.

Gillio also used the climb to promote his online education program, Student Health Force, which aims to educate young people about avoiding heart disease through exercise, a healthy diet and avoiding smoking, and to have those young people be a force for healthy change in their families, schools and communities.

Gillio created a website,, to use the climb as an analogy for tackling a health issue.

Along with putting their own fears behind them and showing what heart patients can accomplish, the two Magellis and Gillio were also providing research data for a Mayo Clinic doctor studying how altitude affects cardiac patients. The three men wore equipment that measured their heart rates, the oxygen levels in their blood, symptoms of altitude sickness and other physiological data. The data will be analyzed at Mayo’s Extreme Medicine and Physiology Program.

The Magellis are considering another Kilimanjaro climb in July to collect more data for Mayo. By that time, Magelli Sr. will be 80.

“Here’s an 80-year-old who has the possibility of doing it,” Magelli said. “Let’s remove that glass ceiling.”

For more about the climb, to go to read blog posts or listen to audio posts. The website also has a link to the Facebook account, under “MyClimb Gallery” at the bottom of the home page. Photos from the trip are posted on the Facebook site.

Above photos: Paul Magelli Sr. and Paul Magelli Jr., top; Paul Magelli Jr., Paul Magelli Sr. and Rob Gillio, bottom.


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