Jon Bernhard has a taste for adventure and the energy to match it. He channels that energy to achieve incredible feats – from biking the country end-to-end to camping on a glacier in Alaska – all while living with a chronic lung disease.
At age 22, Jon was a competitive bike racer. A few months later, he had lost 60 lbs. and could barely walk around his house.
In addition to the weight loss, Jon was suffering from a myriad of symptoms – shortness of breath, chest tightness, night sweats and chills. Doctor after doctor was unable to find an answer for this mysterious transformation.
Jon came to National Jewish Health a few months later. He lived here for a month while doctors searched for an answer. Finally, he had an unusual diagnosis – mycobacterium avium complex (MAC). MAC is one strain of Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM), which are related to the tuberculosis germ. How and why people become infected with NTM is not clear. The germs are found easily in water and soil, but they do not affect most people.
“When I got the diagnosis, it was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders,” Jon says. “I could finally see the summit, and I knew I could make it there.”
It was rare to be diagnosed at such a young age since MAC usually affects people in their 50s and 60s. “There were probably a cascading set of events that led to contracting MAC,” Jon says. “I was traveling all over the country, and I was probably overtrained and undernourished.”
That diagnosis and first trip to National Jewish Health were nearly 30 years ago, and Jon still sees doctors here to manage his lung health. Over the last three decades, he has also been committed to giving back to the hospital and the Morgridge Academy, a free day school for chronically ill children on our campus.
Jon is a teacher in his hometown of Buena Vista, Colo., and he connects with the 85 students of Morgridge Academy in a variety of ways throughout the school year and summer camp. In the summer of 2013, Jon communicated with students during a 25-day bike ride from the Canadian border to Mexico. The students were studying weather, and Jon checked in with weather reports throughout the trip. He also shared what he was eating, readings from his heart rate monitor and how many calories he was burning each day.
He also uses his connections with outdoor companies to obtain donations of winter clothing for students, many of whom come from underserved communities. A sock company recently donated wool socks for all of the students.
“National Jewish Health is the reason I’m here, that I have a career, that I can ride my bike,” Jon says. “I want to give back in any way I can.”
And, he’s already planning his next adventure …
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