Visitors who climb to the top observation deck of the 180-foot-tall Confluence Tower must do so via a narrow stairwell with 262 steps. Linas Grybinas on Saturday morning slung a human being across his broad shoulders in a classic “fireman’s carry” and hauled three passengers toward the tower’s top, one gut-grinding, lung-searing step at a time.
Grybinas, who runs a mental health center in Fairview Heights, had undertaken his ordeal as part of his “Climb for PTSD,” a project he’s launched on his own to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and to generate money to help people dealing with the chronic anxiety disorder.
Toward the end of the climb, with just a few flights to go, the trek to the tower’s top became a contest between his flagging 50-year-old body and the forces of gravity.
Grybinas set his third and final passenger, Jack Aldredge, 13, on a landing to take one last rest break.
Grybinas is a self-described fitness buff who’s been lifting weights most of his life. Even so, by the homestretch of this climb he was panting heavily. His labored breathing echoed against the concrete walls.
“Are you OK?” Jack asked.
“Yes, I am,” Grybinas gasped. “Are you?”
From the observation deck maybe 20 feet above, the voice of Grybinas’ wife Lisa floated downward.
“Come on,” she called. “You can do it.”
Grybinas grimaced, his face a mask of grim purpose. He lowered his shoulders and reached for Jack.
“All right,” Grybinas said. “Let’s get through this.”
Which is exactly what Grybinas did. A few seconds later, a crowd of supporters began applauding and cheering as he approached the door to the observation deck. The cheers continued as Grybinas collapsed to the floor, a victim of lactic acid overload and severe oxygen debt.
The climb began some 20 minutes earlier with a woman named Kimberly Baxter, who has been receiving counseling for military sexual trauma she suffered while serving in the U.S. Navy. Baxter was attacked at a military installation more than 20 years ago. Ever since, she has suffered the classic symptoms of PTSD — nightmares, anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks.
PTSD can occur following a life-threatening trauma such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault. About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 54, or about 5.2 million people, will likely experience PTSD during the course of a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA.
Baxter had agreed to ride atop Grybinas’ shoulders for the first leg of their journey. For Baxter, the climb had both a symbolic and therapeutic power.
“I think it’s to help other people bring some awareness to PTSD,” said Baxter, of Belleville. “It is symbolic because it alleviates some of the pressure off people that don’t have the VA to rely on.”
A few minutes later, trailed by a small support crew of friends bearing cameras and massive postive energy vibes, Baxter and Grybinas set off on their shared journey. After a few flights, Grybinas began breathing hard, as if suddenly he was above 25,000 feet and inching his way up a Himalayan slope.
At the tower’s first observation deck, Grybinas set Baxter down and then did a slow-motion collapse to the deck’s floor.
“The knees are fine,” he said between deep gasps, “my lungs aren’t ... oh, my gosh.”
Grybinas exchanged Baxter for another woman, Betty Moreno, of Mascoutah. Moreno is receiving treatment for a stress disorder acquired during her childhood. Moreno said she was eager to volunteer for Grybinas’ climb because “I personally feel we owe everything to our veterans who fought for our way of life.”
Going up the tower in a fireman’s carry is perfectly symbolic, she said, because it is the way that soldiers carry their wounded comrades off the battlefield. For many veterans who’ve come home from war, “their comrades are gone, but people aren’t aware they are still fighting,” she said.
Weighted with Moreno across his shoulders, Grybinas attacked the next set of steps. After a couple of flights, he set Moreno down.
“We can do this,” she said.
“We can,” he said. “It’s for a good cause.”
At the second observation deck, Grybinas walked through the door, set Moreno down and collapsed again.
“It’s painful,” he said. “Oh, my God. My legs are shot.”
Undaunted, Grybinas rose to his feet and picked up his third passenger, Jack Aldredge, the son of a good friend named John Aldredge, who was serving as Grybinas’ videographer and chief support person. Five minutes later, the ordeal was over and everyone headed back down to the ground. Only a few people chose the stairs over the elevator for the trip back to ground level.
Later that morning, after rounds of thank yous and posing for pictures, Grybinas said he plans another climb a month from now, at a site to be determined by visitors to this Facebook page, “Climb for PTSD.”
As for all the fatigue and pain, that was behind him, he said.
“I feel exhilarated,” he said. “Exhausted, but exhilarated.”
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.