Neurologist Keeps Feet on the Ground While Climbing to New Heights

December 19, 2014

Fredy Revilla, MD, never met a mountain he didn't like. The neurologist has found a connection between his passion for climbing and his profession of caring for patients with neurological disorders.

Fredy Revilla, MD, never met a mountain he didn’t like. That’s because Revilla, associate professor of neurology, and medical director of the Ohio-based Gardner Family Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, was born and bred in Arequipa, in the heart of the Peruvian mountains of South America.

Arequipa is surrounded by 3 volcanoes, one of which, Misti, which sits 19,101 feet above sea level and Revilla was able to see from his bedroom window.

“I had a magnificent view,” says Revilla, adding that he climbed Misti for the first time at a very young age. “Because of that, one of my first natural passions was for mountains.”

And to this day Revilla continues to ascend to new heights, both literally and figuratively.

Family of neurologists

Revilla comes from a family of physicians. Both of his parents are physicians, his maternal grandfather was a professor of anatomy, and his maternal uncle is a neurosurgeon. Not surprisingly, the talk at the dinner and breakfast tables centered on medicine.

“Specifically with my uncle and my grandfather, the discussion revolved around the brain and anatomy,” Revilla says. “I remember going to neurosurgical procedures, and going with my father to see patients on evening rounds. On weekends we would study brains and brain tumors. For me, it was very natural from the beginning to pursue a career in medicine, and specifically, in neurology.”

Revilla’s fascination with neurology centers on the brain being the only organ that is self-aware. The brain and other neuro-activities are what define every individual. All thinking and decision-making takes place in the brain.

“Our brains allow us to move in very complex ways,” he explains. “And to realize that, in my particular field of Parkinson’s and movement disorders, there are a lot of things you can do to help people with brain disorders, was just a natural fit for me. You know, this is what I wanted to do for my whole life.”

Nurtured in the mountains

Revilla says that the person he is today is a direct result of the role models in his family. His grandfather, the physician and anatomy professor, was the first person to organize a medical expedition to the crater of an active volcano. A subsequent book chronicling the trip enabled Revilla to re-live the 3-day study of how the human body reacts to high altitudes.

“My grandfather was a scientist before the time that scientists were really appreciated as a career … especially neuroscientists,” he explains. “My uncle, the neurosurgeon, inherited that passion from his father, my grandfather. And after I climbed the Misti volcano with him as a teenager, I was hooked.”

Over time, Revilla has discovered that the physiology of his body has always been able to adapt perfectly to high altitudes. He explains that scientists in Peru who studied high-altitude chronic mountain sickness discovered there was likely a genetic predisposition to having the ability to survive, even thrive, at high altitudes. Then, when he went to the Peruvian Islands in his 20s during medical school, many of his climbing partners, despite being top-level athletes, had tremendous difficulty with high altitude.

“For my body, it was natural for me to be in high altitudes as opposed to my friends, and it took them a lot longer to acclimate,” Revilla explains. “I just went directly from sea level to base camp, more than 4,000 meters above sea level, with no problems.”

He has since climbed to the summit of Mt. Illimani in Bolivia, which stands 21,122 feet above sea level, and dedicated the climb to his patients who struggle with Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

Making the connection

Revilla’s work in neurology has fostered an understanding of how important exercise is for brain tissue. He explains how neurologists now understand that exercise is part of the treatment strategy for neuro-protection among people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. And that exercise can prevent, to some degree, or at least delay, the onset of Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the brain.

“We did not know that when I was a kid and naturally played soccer like everybody else does in South America,” he says. “Or when, as a teenager, I climbed the mountains with my uncle and grandfather. It’s only recently that we have this scientific trend to promote exercise.”

Of course, that encourages Revilla to continue that lifestyle. But it also encourages him to promote it to his patients. Dedicating his climb of Mt. Illimani to his patients was his way of providing them with inspiration to address their own personal challenges.

“Each one of my patients who has a neurological disease has challenges,” Revilla explains. “It may not be climbing a mountain, but in terms of doing exercise, maybe they want to run a marathon or accomplish a 100-K bike ride. Exercise allows me to bond with my patients, because I can tell them from first-hand experience how beneficial it is.”

Still climbing

Revilla says that perhaps the most rewarding aspects of the work he does is waking up each morning to see the results modern treatments have had on his patients’ quality of life. He explains that all the research done on Parkinson’s disease would be completely meaningless without visiting one of his patients after they have received a treatment called deep brain stimulation.

“It was developed in France in the early 1990s, and we apply it to Parkinson’s,” he explains. “Several weeks or months following the procedure, they have pretty much recovered their lives. It’s just amazing to see how these people can do something they were unable to before.”

And for Revilla, there are also mountains left to climb. Has he ever thought about tackling Mt. Everest?

“Absolutely,” he says. “It has always been a dream of mine to go to Everest. But honestly, I’d have to have a second life to be able to go. I’m a neurologist and a scientist, so I’m very busy. And it’s difficult to find the capital required not only to train, but to organize the logistics of an expedition. But, I have always dreamed of going.”

Don’t bet against him.