Uphill Journeys

By Anne-Marie R. Seltzer

Jesse Beer, Ian Morrill and Michael Erickson

Jesse Beer ’01, Ian KM Morrill ’02, Michael Erickson ’05

For patients living with pulmonary hypertension (or “PH,” high blood pressure in the lungs), Uphill Journeys provides information and support for this often fatal and frequently misdiagnosed disease. And for three Saint Joseph’s College alumni, this non-profit initiative based at Maine Medical Center in Portland represents friendship and the satisfaction of working together toward a shared goal.

“I met Jesse Beer and Michael Erickson when we played soccer as undergraduates,” says Ian KM Morrill, chief legal officer of Uphill Journeys and an attorney. “They got to know my mom, Jeannette, at our games. When I asked them to help with Uphill Journeys, neither hesitated to come on board.”

Jeannette Morrill is one of the longest living survivors of PH, a debilitating disease that can weaken the heart. “Mom was diagnosed at age 23, right before her wedding,” explains Morrill, who was adopted by Jeannette and David Morrill from a Korean orphanage at age seven, along with his older brother, Brian Morrill ’98, because the disease prevented her from having children. “During a hospitalization in 2010, she spent time talking with a patient who had just been diagnosed. Mom decided that she wanted to offer hope and encouragement to people with PH in Maine and New Hampshire because information isn’t always available, especially in rural areas. Uphill Journeys was the result.”

The program was named Uphill Journeys (UJ) because patients often experience shortness of breath and dizziness while walking up hills, stairs or other inclines. Because these symptoms can be associated with other diseases, patients frequently go undiagnosed and untreated. There is no cure. It can strike at any age.

On UJ’s website, “Doctors can register confidentially and discuss research, diagnosis and treatments,” says Morrill. “Patients get access to support groups, resources and other persons with the disease. We want to make this site a model for similar initiatives in this country and abroad.” Over the next two years, Morrill wants UJ to personally visit every hospital in Maine and New Hampshire.

“With our medical network of pulmonary and cardiac doctors, we support hundreds of PH patients in rural Maine and New Hampshire and thousands more if you include caretakers and family support. Nationally, we spend thousands each year on PH research and also appear in Congress with our elected officials to pass research legislative directives.”

Jesse Beer, who has known Morrill since 1999, says, “I learned about the hardships that patients and families go through, and wanted to do what I could to raise awareness.”

Beer was also motivated by what he saw on campus – staff and students giving back. “The Sisters of Mercy encourage volunteerism,” says Beer, who works in Boston and serves as UJ’s chief financial officer. Funding covers patients’ travel costs for treatment, program expenses and support for the national Pulmonary Hypertension Association.

Michael Erickson, UJ’s Portland-based marketing director, expressed similar feelings: “Working on Uphill Journeys means spending time on a good cause and being supportive to a friend and his family. Ian asked me to help and I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just made myself available.” He described Mrs. Morrill, who sings in church and plays golf with a catheter pumping medicine into her heart, as “very strong, very driven, very passionate and selfless.”

As marketing director, Erickson handles networking and event planning, like their annual golf tournament. He is also developing connections with the College’s nursing program as a way to share information about PH.

Morrill and his friends are committed to UJ and its success and hope that by informing doctors and patients, more people will survive. For more details, visit www.uphilljourneys.org and find them on Facebook.