Guest on a Mountain
Jeff Marco climbed Mt. Whitney in March 2012 and got about 350 feet from the top before he had to turn back. One year later, he tried again. This time he made it.
That Marco – account manager for McKesson Medical-Surgical – attempted and then achieved the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain peak in the lower 48 states, is notable. The fact that he did it a decade after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis makes it remarkable.
The ascents up Mt. Whitney taught him a couple of lessons, not just about mountaineering, but about how to live a full life with a debilitating disease. And they carry lessons from which others – even those without MS – might benefit.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Marco and his family moved to rural Culpeper County, Virginia – about 70 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. He recalls mucking horse stalls each day, spending countless hours in the fields baling hay and performing other chores on the family farm.
After graduating from high school, Marco took a year off to travel with Up With People, a performing arts and social-awareness group for young people. For a year he traveled with the group throughout the United States, Mexico and Australia. “We would arrive and meet our host family; do a community service event, and then perform.” Those community service events might involve painting or rehabbing structures, working with special needs groups, visiting the sick in hospitals, etc. On Day Three, it was on to the next town.
The year with Up With People was an eye-opener for an 18-year-old kid who was used to going to school, wrestling, playing soccer and working on the farm.
“To this day, I still reflect on that experience, traveling around the world with a group of people between 18 and 26, who themselves were from all over the world – Japan, New Zealand, Germany. It shapes your worldview, being exposed to so many different cultures, not just in an immediate sense of the cast, who you’re with 24 hours a day for 365 days. But expand that to all the host families we stayed with.”
After his year off, Marco began working on a college degree. “I didn’t follow the traditional educational path – high school to university then professional job,” he says. “Working and paying cash meant it took me quite a bit longer to finish my degree.”
In fact, his college years were action-packed: He was a member of the crew team. He worked as a bartender to earn tuition money. He met his wife-to-be, Wendy; the two got married and had their first child, Cierra.
Then, in June 2001, as he was finishing work on his biology degree, he was diagnosed with MS.
MS is a chronic autoimmune disease that is the result of the body destroying the protective casing (myelin) surrounding the nerves, explains Marco. As the myelin is destroyed, signals from the brain become interrupted and normal function is degraded over time. A host of issues can develop, from cognitive decline and depression to chronic fatigue, blindness, ambulatory issues that range from trouble walking to the inability to walk at all, and other physical and psychological challenges.
“Symptoms had begun appearing several years prior – trigeminal neuralgia, facial spasms, slurred speech, numbness and tingling sensations in legs, fatigue not helped by coffee or sleep,” he says.
MS – like many other neurological diseases – isn’t a one-test diagnosis, he points out. Neurologists rely on numerous tests including MRI, evoked potential (a test to measure the electrical activity of the brain in response to stimulation of sensory nerve pathways), analysis of central nervous system fluid and other tests to eventually conclude whether or not the symptoms are caused by multiple sclerosis.
Despite the diagnosis, Marco had some career decisions to make.
“I had a family and a mortgage while still in school. My wife, Wendy, was building a business as a hockey skating coach. All this was making me rethink my career aspirations. A friend mentioned medical sales, and I began in 2002. Fifteen years later, here I am, a McKesson account manager.”
A decade-long secret
For a decade, Marco refused to share his diagnosis with anyone outside the family, including those with whom he worked. It wasn’t always easy.
“For the first decade of my life with MS, most of my pain was the result of the interferons I had been injecting into my body, either every other day or once a week, depending on the therapy I was on. It was miserable.
“Interferons are proteins designed to activate the immune system and re-direct a subset of T-cells (white blood cells) away from their destructive behavior on nerve tissue,” he explains. “My immune system would hyper-respond. Injecting the medicine was like injecting the flu virus. I spent nearly every day of that first decade with significant flu symptoms – fever, body aches, chills…virtually mimicking the flu sans the nausea. I survived on buckets of coffee and entirely too much ibuprofen.”
Then, five years ago, Marco found that he couldn’t hide his MS any longer.
“I went for a trail run, and it didn’t go well,” he recalls. “A half-mile in, my right leg started failing. I fell numerous times and had to cut my run short after two miles. I limped home with the gut-wrenching realization that the degradation had finally begun. I was depressed for a few days – avoiding people and generally feeling sorry for myself.”
After several days, he decided to take action – in a big way: Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Then, deciding that wasn’t enough of a challenge, he decided to tackle Whitney. “I trained like a maniac,” he says.
Wendy wasn’t keen on the idea. “She was terrified at the prospect of me climbing a big mountain – in the winter – with crampons strapped to my boots – an ice axe in hand – a 60-pound pack on my back – in freezing temps and high winds.
“I had some very significant issues both times on the mountain,” he says. Dehydration – a common occurrence among mountaineers – can affect those with MS more severely. “The first time, I failed to summit – got to about 350 feet from the top and had to turn back. That’s a harrowing story.” But he and Wendy raised more than $35,000 for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“It’s hard to explain the emotional devastation that I felt – coming down and not having made the summit,” he recalls. “But on the way down, I vowed I would be back the following year.”
On the second attempt a year later, he reached the summit but had an even more significant issue once reaching the top. “That is quite a story. It took me eight hours to descend about 2,000 feet back to upper camp at 12,500 feet. Once I made it back to camp the real fun began – it was a long night.”
That second climb was his last attempt at mountaineering. But he doesn’t regret a moment.
“I love being in the mountains, being in an environment where it’s ridiculously challenging – below-zero temperatures, high winds, steep pitches. When you’re above tree line, you have to bring everything to survive, because there’s nothing there for you. I love it. I absolutely love it.”
And climbing Mt. Whitney taught him some valuable lessons.
Can’t fight a mountain
“I believe my failure the first time on the mountain was, in part, due to my arrogance…or maybe ‘ignorance’ is a better way to put it. I trained hard. My goal was to be the strongest person on that mountain at that time. I knew I had to overcome limitations, so I overcompensated. But you’re a guest on a mountain. I made some mistakes; I didn’t hydrate well enough.
“It didn’t even occur to me that not making the summit was an option,” he continues. “Things went wrong and I didn’t make it. I hadn’t partnered with the mountain. Instead, my approach was to conquer it. Well, mountains can’t be conquered. They allow you to visit, maybe summit sometimes, but they have their own rules – something I didn’t understand or respect.”
The same could be said for MS.
“There is no cure for MS, though there are therapies designed to slow its progression,” he says. “However, I am certain that my high activity level has helped almost as much as the medication. I take a very proactive approach to this disease. I exercise a lot. I can no longer run at all, but in my training for mountaineering, I discovered cycling, and have been an avid cyclist for several years now.” He sometimes rides in sponsored MS 100-mile rides to raise money. Every day, he cycles or works out on an indoor rowing machine.
“I feel like we can have amazing lives, even with chronic diseases, if we don’t allow them to stop us from doing something … anything … as long as we try.”
His family seems to be on the same wavelength.
Wendy is the owner of ColdRush, a company in suburban Washington, D.C., that provides ice hockey skating instruction. She works with children up to NHL players. She has a communications degree from Texas A&M University with a minor in theatre, and was a television news reporter before she started ColdRush. She grew up on the ice and was a competitive figure skater for over 10 years. Their older daughter, Cierra, is in Boston studying musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, while younger daughter Kylie is a competitive dancer and will likely follow her sister into the performing arts as a musical theatre artist.
“With MS, you have to be physically stronger and emotionally tougher than others just to live a normal life,” he says. “And if you want to go beyond normal, outside your comfort zone, you need to work even harder to make that happen.
“But you may just discover you’re capable of far more than you realize.”
Sales training from behind the bar
Everybody should work in a restaurant, says Jeff Marco, account manager for McKesson Medical-Surgical. He speaks from experience, having tended bar for several years while working his way through college and helping support a young family. And that advice might be especially helpful for would-be sales reps.
“Working in a restaurant, you encounter so many different types of people,” he says. “You’re dealing with the public – lots of different personalities.
“What I learned was, no matter who I was dealing with, I was dealing with whatever was going on in their head at the moment. That was especially helpful to keep in mind when they weren’t being very nice. I learned that it’s more about what’s going on in their life than it is about you.
“You learn how to navigate different situations and personalities. You learn when to back off. You learn that service is absolutely critical. You learn to take care of the people who you are charged with supporting – whether that customer is at a bar or at a surgery center.”