In May, Dr. Jack Sanders, retired Jefferson City cardiologist, completed the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim walk. Although it’s no walk in the park for anyone, Sanders was 84 at the time and might have been the oldest person to complete the challenging undertaking. Yet his intent was not to set any records. He was just following a lifelong philosophy passed down from his father “to do as much as you can and learn as much as you can.” It’s a way of living that has served him well over the years.
Born in St. Louis, Sanders moved to Joplin, Mo., when his father, who worked for Southwestern Bell, was transferred to the area. When Sanders was only 18, his mother died of tuberculosis, but with his father’s encouragement, he continued his education. He went on to receive two undergraduate degrees, a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and a B.S. from the University of Missouri, before graduating from Harvard with his medical degree.
On staff at the University Medical Center in Columbia as a cardiologist and also in internal medicine early in his career, Sanders moved to Jefferson City in 1961. As the first cardiologist in the capital city, Sanders implanted the first pacemaker, created the rehab unit and trained the first intensive care nurses unit.
About this time, he also got interested in mountaineering. Following his father’s advice once again, he learned as much as he could about the sport. During the next 16 years, Sanders climbed all over the United States, Peru, Pakistan and Canada, including scaling the Swiss and French Alps. As a cardiologist he developed an interest in the effects of high altitude on the heart. “I got a research grant to study this,” he says.
Utilizing the first Holter monitor, which records a continuous electrocardiogram, Sanders climbed Longs Peak, the highest mountain in northern Colorado. He published his results in an article entitled “Dynamic Electrocardiology at High Altitude” in a national journal, which earned him international attention. “I got requests for reprints from all over the world,” Sanders says.
With a love for travel, Sanders often went on trips and served as a physician. In 1980, he joined an American College of Cardiology group, lead by a former Harvard professor who went to China to speak to the evolving nation about heart problems. “I talked and lectured throughout the region on pacemakers,” Sanders says.
Often Sander’s wife, Jimmy Kay, went with him on these trips. On one particularly memorable one, they accompanied famed New Zealand mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmond Hillary on a hike through Nepal in the 1980s. “I took his blood pressure every day,” Sanders says. Sanders and his wife also walked across England, followed the Camino Pilgrimage trail in Spain and hiked the Haute Route in the Alps.
Sanders often tended to the medical needs of the local population when he took trips abroad. “People knew I was there,” he says, adding that they often came at all hours. “In Pakistan, I operated by flashlight on a guy in the middle of the night who had an ax wound.” He even stepped a bit outside of his medical specialty and pulled a tooth while he was there.
It was a family raft trip about 49 years ago that inspired Sanders to consider the Grand Canyon walk. He was so impressed with the scenery, he wanted to return and had been thinking about it for a while. Yet at 84, he also knew there were concerns. “The classic way of doing it is a four-day trip with three nights of camping out,” he says. His son, cardiologist Dr. Jeffrey S. Sanders, ultimately helped make the trip possible. According to Sanders, his son said, “If you do everything I say and let me be in charge, I’ll do it.”
On May 25, Sanders’ team, which included his son, his two daughters and a guide, began their descent into the canyon. “It’s 14 miles or more from the top of the north rim to the bottom and about a 25-mile walk total,” Sanders says. “We camped out seven miles down, at the bottom of the canyon and halfway up the south wall.”
The journey was challenging to say the least, but Sanders was repeatedly encouraged by people who stopped to talk with him along the way. “I got all sorts of people coming up to me, giving me a thumbs up,” he says, humbled by all the attention. When they were about 100 yards short of reaching the end of the trail, a woman came down from the south rim to greet them and get a picture with the 84-year-old man she had heard so much about.
Sanders continues to follow his father’s sage advice to never stop learning and encourages others to do the same. “It’s always good to learn,” he says. “You’re not going to be interested in everything, but certain things will attract you, and you’ll wonder what they are all about. If you don’t like something, at least learn why you don’t like it, and then you can form your own opinion.”
As a physician, he has some additional advice of his own: “You have to keep moving. If you start sitting down, you’re going to stay sitting down. Visit places you haven’t been, even if you have to go without other things.”
Above all, try not to get discouraged. “Victory is often just around the corner if you give it a chance,” Sanders says.
Regarding any future plans, Sanders is going to take a backseat for a while. “My wife has always been a great travel companion,” he says. “I want to make sure we do some things that she specifically wants to do for a change. Overall, I want to stay in as good of shape as I can.”