Carrying her donor’s spirit to the top of the Rockies

Becky Pomerleau climbed her first fourteener in September just three years after receiving a life-saving heart transplant
October 24th, 2017
Becky Pomerleau holding a sign saying Quandary Peak 14,265 feet at the top of that peak.
Becky Pomerleau suffered multiple heart attacks and needed a heart transplant just three years ago. In September, she climbed her first 14er after the transplant.

Becky Pomerleau was just 34 when three heart attacks left her so sick that she needed a heart transplant.

Following her surgery, she wrote to her donor’s family to thank them for saving her life.

Months later, Becky received a hand-written letter back from her donor’s parents sharing details about the daughter they had loved and lost.

One fact in that letter nearly broke the new heart beating inside Becky’s chest.

Her donor had only been 13 when she died.

Becky broke down and sobbed that day. She mourned for her donor and crystallized her own goals, becoming more determined than ever to live with purpose and carry her young donor’s spirit everywhere she goes.

On Labor Day, Becky, now 37, labored hard to climb with her new transplanted heart to a very special place.

She reached the summit of Quandary Peak, altitude 14,265, the first fourteener Becky climbed following her transplant just three years ago.

It was a spectacular day with crystal blue skies and none of the thunderstorms that often chase climbers off Colorado’s tallest peaks.

So, after hiking more than 3 ½ miles and 3,500 vertical feet to the summit, Becky and her husband had time to sit on some rocks and reflect on their journey. Becky thought of her donor.

“None of this would have been possible without her. The emotions that come with having an organ donor are very complicated,” Becky said.

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“My Christian faith has a lot to do with how I’ve coped. I believe this is all part of God’s bigger plan and I want to do things like climb fourteeners to honor her and honor all organ donors, not just sit back and say, ‘At least I’m still here.’”

Once a competitive runner, Becky has been working hard to regain her physical fitness after the transplant.

Her health crisis began in 2014 as Becky, her husband, Jeremiah, and their family celebrated Thanksgiving and their fifth anniversary with a ski trip to Breckenridge.

As she served up chili at lunch on Friday, Becky felt some tingling in her arm along with some uncomfortable pressure in her chest. She was so young and fit that she didn’t believe she could be having a heart attack. When the same sensation happened again a couple of days later, Jeremiah insisted Becky go to the hospital in Summit County.

Becky Pomerleau is careful to warm up slowly when she exercises with her new transplanted heart. In September, she climbed her first fourteener since her translant three years ago.

Doctors in the mountains told Becky that she needed to be sent by ambulance to Denver for further testing. The next day during a routine angiogram, Becky’s coronary arteries repeatedly dissected. Doctors there diagnosed Becky with a rare type of heart attack that can strike young women. It’s called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection or SCAD. There’s no known cause and there was no way for Becky to know she was at risk until her heart essentially tore and failed.

After several hours, doctors decided that she needed to be transferred to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital, where providers could treat her extensive heart damage. A helicopter brought Becky to Aurora where Jeremiah learned his wife had as little as a 30 percent chance of surviving.

Remarkably, she not only survived. She has thrived. Becky received her transplant on Dec. 18, 2014.

She and Jeremiah met in Colorado, but later moved to Silicon Valley, where Becky works for Pay Pal. She has worked with exercise physiologists since the transplant to try to regain her physical capabilities. She’s been jogging and has competed in a 5K race. The couple has a condo in Breckenridge, so they return to Colorado frequently. When they arrived for an extended weekend this Labor Day, Becky decided she was ready to try to summit a fourteener.

“It’s really to prove to myself that I can still do these things. I wanted to show people the quality of life that transplant recipients can have,” Becky said.

She and Jeremiah had climbed about a half-dozen of Colorado’s tallest peaks – the fourteeners – before Becky got sick.

This time was certainly harder, but the joy at the top was even sweeter.

Becky took her time, resting and rehydrating frequently. Since her transplanted heart is no longer connected to her central nervous system and doesn’t respond as quickly to vigorous exercise, Becky is careful to give herself time to warm up when she’s exerting herself physically.

Hiking is especially challenging at high altitude. On the way up, as the couple passed tree line, there’s a spot where the trail levels out a bit before the final ascent. Becky took time to rest there, ate some snacks, rehydrated, took some aspirin just to be on the safe side then began the final stretch.

When they made it to the top, her first thought was, “Thank God. I can sit down and relax.”

She felt a great sense of accomplishment.

“We did this,” she said to Jeremiah as the two celebrated with one of their two dachshunds, Scooter, who also did great on the climb.

Jeremiah told her how proud he was of her. And that meant a lot.

Becky and Jeremiah Pomerleau at the top of Quandary Peak with one of their dogs, Scooter.
Becky and Jeremiah Pomerleau at the top of Quandary Peak with one of their dogs, Scooter.

“I’m making a very concerted effort to get back to normal for him and for our relationship. Of course, when you make your vows, you say it’s in sickness and in health, but never in a million years did either of us think I’d have heart attacks and need a transplant.”

On momentous occasions, like at the top of Quandary, Becky makes a very conscious effort to count her blessings.

“It’s a time to pause and stop and smell the roses. I don’t waste any of these opportunities. I take that moment to be thankful. I pray for my donor and her family. I fully appreciate everything. This was quite a milestone,” she said.

The couple took lots of photos and if she could, Becky would text one of the photos to her donor’s parents along with a simple message about their daughter.

“She’s still living on through me.”