PITTSBURGH – The adventure started with a gentle nudge at a cycling camp in Tucson, Ariz., in 2010. The physician was surrounded for one week by cyclists from across the country, a few of whom competed in ultra races. The idea appealed to the pedaling pulmonologist. Then came a healthy push that summer at the Pulmonary Hypertension (PH) Association’s International Conference in California, where she sat alongside fellow health-care providers and PH sufferers alike watching an inspirational video about a medical team climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on a charitable mission. The final shove came from the calendar. “The reasoning being: When you turn 40, you either hang up black crepe paper and those cheesy ‘Lordy, Lordy’ signs, or you race your bike across America,” Dr. Patty George recalled, matter-of-factly. “The choice seemed pretty clear to us.”
So Dr. George first asked a fellow University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) employee and friend in the Department of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, Stacie Truszkowski, also about to turn 40: What would you think about doing the Race Across America to raise awareness and donations for PH? “I thought it was a great idea, and was immediately in,” said Truszkowski. They, in turn, were on a training ride when they asked a mutual friend, engineering manager and triathlete Anne-Marie Alderson. “We knew she’d be great – Ironman finisher, endurance fanatic, super-strong rider, and with a touch of crazy to say ‘yes’ to something like this,” Dr. George said. “We were surprised when her first answer was ‘no.’“ Actually, Alderson remembered, her first response was: “RAAM!? That’s totally insane!!” Her second response: When you’re already training thousands of miles on your feet, on a bike, in a pool and on a treadmill to compete in three triathlons a year. . . why not cycle from San Diego to Annapolis, Md.? At last, mountain biker and then-graduate student Ryanne Palermo was approached by her pal Truszkowski. Maybe a nanosecond passed before she answered in the affirmative. Maybe. “I live for adventure,” said Palermo. A team and a quest were started. Here comes Team PHenomenal Hope, these four RAAM-rookie women from Pittsburgh and environs who have been pedaling through endurance races and mountain climbs and training runs. Who have been in the final few months of a years-long preparation for the 3,000-mile, 24/7, coast-to-coast expedition one-third longer than the Tour de France. Who have been cycling with hundreds of thousands of PH sufferers figuratively riding with them, as they try to increase the profile and find a cure for a misunderstood and misdiagnosed disease, where high blood pressure – from narrowed or blocked arteries leading to the lungs – can cause heart failure at worst and alter a way of life at best.
“This idea of racing RAAM was deep in the sulcus of my brain for awhile, and now we had a way to use it to raise awareness about PH,” Dr. George said. “Honestly, it has been a lot of work, helping build a charity team, reaching out for support to find a cure. But I have found that this definitely has been sort of a calling for me. I believe it is possible to do difficult things as long as you’re passionate about them. So as the race gets in sight, it is neat to see us getting closer to our goals.” These four cycling women have set into motion a national movement, too. Sponsored by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association along with UPMC and others, Team PHenomenal Hope has caused PH patients around America to start either their own exercise programs or charities, in support of the team. The PHA, dubbing this adventure and campaign “The Race of Our Lives,” has scheduled among other activities a national PHenomenal Mile walk on April 12 in 53 U.S. cities as well as Puerto Rico. An 11-year-old Pittsburgh area girl heard about the team’s quest, dipped into her savings and became not only a donor but an ardent fan and new friend. “Being a patient with pulmonary arterial hypertension (a form of PH) and knowing the reason why these women want to ride a bicycle 24/7 in nine days across this great country of ours is PHenomenal,” said longtime patient/activist Merle Reeseman of Grove City, Pa., 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. “Not only is it an awesome adventure, but an awesome way of letting those with the dastardly disease know there is hope — hope for life, hope for a future without too much strife. Having PH and having your life taken from you in a heartbeat is not a circumstance you get used to. . ., and they are giving us that hope. Their care and dedication to raise funds for not only awareness but for research is beyond comprehension. I thank them from the bottom of my oversized heart.” The team seemingly made some traction even before it embarks for Oceanside, Calif., and the RAAM start June 14. “My teammates,” Alderson said, “inspire me on a daily basis.” “Yeah, I have asthma and I use an inhaler, but here are these PH patients, stepping up to the challenge to ride 3,000 miles before we get to the starting line,” Truszkowski said. “That’s inspiring.” “From the little girl who sent us our first ‘snail mail’ to seeing the comments on our Facebook or Twitter accounts, all of these signs indicate to us that our mission is on a path to success and that we’re impacting the PH community at large,” Palermo added. “There are three PH patients who took on the challenge of completing 3,000 miles on a bike before we finish our race. I am astounded and humbled by their commitment to that goal and the progress they’ve made so far. There are cyclists I know who have absolutely no health limitations, and this type of challenge would never cross their mind. Even the patients doing this challenge said a distance goal of this magnitude never would’ve crossed their minds had not Team PHenomenal Hope motivated them to pick up their own torch.” Dr. George continued: “We all are so grateful for this opportunity to work with the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, UPMC and all of our sponsors and supports, and most important the pulmonary hypertension community, and spread awareness about a disease for which there are treatments but still no cure. We hope that by working together we can change that, one pedal stroke at a time.” The doctor is in A wide array of sports – tennis, soccer, baseball (including women’s amateur leagues, a modern-day version of “A League of Their Own”), swimming, horseback-riding, you name it — and international relations were her bag, not medicine. So when Dr. George was finishing high school and preparing to leave Chicago’s west suburbs, she headed to Duke University and out into the world. It was during an internship with the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce when and where her scientific interests caused a career shift. Next thing she knew, she was studying at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and running marathons. “I was busy all the time. But I didn’t really ride my bike. . . seriously, until Pittsburgh,” said Dr. George, 40. She felt a need to get back into shape, and “it started as a Tuesday night ‘Team Decaf’ ride out of a local coffee shop.” In 2005, she fell in with a group of triathletes and bicycle racers called Steel City Endurance. She started racing bikes and spending February vacation weeks at that Tucson cycling camp. In her work and research at the Dorothy P. and Richard P. Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease at the University of Pittsburgh and its hospital-partner system, UPMC, Dr. George started out one day a month as the pre-transplant liaison in the pulmonary hypertension clinic. Her clinical role grew into lung-transplant and PH patient care, and she watched new medications attain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and the life expectancy of her patients improve. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to be enough. “Three new therapies have come out in the past year,” Dr. George said. “There are 12 therapies for pulmonary arterial hypertension now; however to date there is still no cure. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness about the disease. There is still a delay in diagnosing the disease, as it can look like other respiratory diseases, which is why it is important to help raise awareness among physicians that, yes, it may be asthma or COPD, but, to borrow a Pulmonary Hypertension Association slogan, sometimes it’s PH. As a doctor, you have to at least consider a diagnosis in order to make a diagnosis.” She has combined these two passions, patient care and pedaling bikes, and feels rewarded long before RAAM. In June 2012, at the every-other-year PHA conference, Team PHenomenal Hope received its national introduction. “Going to conference with my teammates Ry and Stacie, and seeing the conference through their eyes, meeting patients not as a doc but as a member of Team PHenomenal Hope, well, that was pretty special,” Dr. George said. “Few knew about the Race Across America then, but there was a sense of excitement, and more so the PH community welcomed us right away. I think that trip (to Orlando) – seeing my teammates and members of the community develop friendships – helped me to see how this could really be something.” Her feelings were affirmed recently at a PH support-group meeting in Southern California. “So many members who build on each other’s strength, who have PH and don’t allow it to have them. . . ,” she said. “I wanted them to know that they are an essential part of our team, how much they inspire us, and how we are not doing this for them but with them.” So how many miles has the pedaling pulmonologist put in? More than 5,000 in 2013 alone. She was the first female finisher, and second overall, in a fall 200-mile Ohio RAAM Challenge. Through the first quarter of 2014, she logged more than 1,200 mostly indoor miles, and may well log nearly 3,000 more miles before reaching the suburban San Diego starting line in June. Endurance Performance coach Jim Bruskewitz has worked with the team, after helping to coach Dr. George for years. Some Pittsburgh winter days, they put their bikes on trainers and either worked in the same facility or virtually trained together texting and tweeting one another. Once winter started to break in March, that meant more long rides outdoors together. Through the winter, “they did a lot of intervals; riding intensely for shorter periods of time can actually prepare athletes quite well for endurance events,” said Bruskewitz, who monitors their wattage output and heart rate from such training sessions. “The (spring) weekends will be a combination of lots of miles while practicing the relay-style riding they will employ during RAAM. They’ll have a plan, they’ll stick to it, and they will adjust as they confront the unforeseen. I think they will do well.” “Even the longest journeys start with a single step – or pedal stroke,” Palermo said. “Patty was brave enough to get this journey started because of her passion for the PH patients she works with, knowing full well that the amount of work it would take to get the team off the ground would be just as daunting as the ride itself. She convinced us that we would make a difference, and through all the events leading up to the race, I truly believe we are.” The rest of the team
Alderson, 33, of Washington, Pa.: “I was actually pretty unathletic as a kid,” she said. Dance and piano lessons and getting picked last for teams in gym class aren’t exactly the roots of a future triathlete. Yet she sprouted into a high-school track athlete and tennis player. She dabbled in marathons and road races while attending Pitt, graduating in 2005. Soon after, amid the Tepper School of Business graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University, she determined that she would try racing in triathlons. “It’s difficult to tally the miles,” said a woman who regularly works out – bike, swim, run, treadmill, something. . . especially where no wild turkeys can jump out and frighten her. Her hardest day of training: The Pittsburgh Dirty Dozen course, the 13 steepest hills over a 50-mile city route – climbing streets with 20-percent-plus grade and including many on menacing Mount Washington, which overlooks the downtown. “A very tough day of training,” she said. Added Alderson about this PH movement: “It’s a condition that so many people haven’t even heard of, so it’s good to know that we are making a difference.”
Palermo, 31, a scientist-spectroscopist from Butler, Pa.: She started out a soccer star, traveling the Midwest playing the sport. She didn’t begin cycling until she watched her brother compete in a sprint triathlon in 2006. She tried one the next year, followed soon after by her first century charity ride. “The bug hit full force,” said Palermo, who is waiting to defend her Ph.D. dissertation in pharmaceutical science from Duquesne University. She fell in love with mountain biking in late 2008, but it was in mid-2012 when she gained enthusiasm for the road expedition ahead. Palermo and Truszkowski used a multi-state, bike-path journey to test their fortitude in preparing for the coast-to-coast race. Before attending the Pulmonary Hypertension Association conference that summer, they completed the 750-mile trail loop between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., in a matter of days. Since then, Palermo’s RAAM ramp-up included several ultra-endurance mountain bike races like the Shenandoah 100 and the 13-hour Leesburg Baker’s Dozen. In addition, she competed in the Calvin’s Challenge 6-hour road race in Ohio, where both Palermo and Dr. George set records for their age groups. Her hardest day: Yep, the Pittsburgh Dirty Dozen. “Luckily, I had a lot of Yinzers” – Pittsburghese for locals – “and teammates and friends cheering me and the other riders up the hills.”
Truszkowski, 40, assistant in UPMC Pulmonology: Her athletic start? “I had a really long driveway growing up – tough to shovel,” she joked. But bike-riding was her passion throughout her childhood, even though swimming and soccer were her high-school sports. Running road races, even a few marathons, were her recreation through her 20s. In 2007, she got back up on the bike regularly and, around the same time as Dr. George, joined the Steel City Endurance team. Her pre-RAAM program includes daily bike commutes – even in winter’s worst weather — to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland, where the university and a handful of UPMC’s hospitals are located, and cyclocross races, primarily in Maryland. Her hardest day: It’s a trend. . . the Pittsburgh Dirty Dozen. “If you have even just ridden in your car over any of the Dirty Dozen hills, you’d know that to finish any one of those on a bike is a huge accomplishment. The feat is also a very long day on the bike.” And to a woman, each team member envisions an Annapolis end where they are gratified, exhausted, smiling, and sporting their gold and blue of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association. Not to mention, said Palermo, “the worst helmet hair you can imagine.” Bad hair or not, she added, “Crossing the finish line will be a victory shared among so many.”
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