Heart transplant recipient training for ‘personal Olympics’

February 1st, 2018

The competition will be her Olympics.

Three years ago, Becky Pomerleau suffered three heart attacks when she was just 34. A heart transplant at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital saved her life.

Becky Pomerleau poses with an ad that shows her face
A year ago, Becky became one of the faces of UCHealth. Today, she’s training to run in the Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Becky Pomerleau.

In August, she will compete in the Transplant Games of America in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Becky, now 38, was a competitive athlete, who graduated as the valedictorian of her Missouri high school after winning three state championships in track. She went on to run cross country and track at the University of Missouri.

As a super-fit young woman, Becky never expected to suffer a heart attack, much less three of them during a ski trip to Colorado over Thanksgiving back in 2014.

Doctors put her chances of survival then at less than 30 percent.

But Becky’s new heart gave her a second chance at life and she has become one of the inspiring faces of UCHealth. An ad featuring Becky debuted one year ago.

From heart transplant to running again

One of the first questions Becky asked as she recovered from transplant surgery was, “When can I start running?”

Becky Pomerleau running in a race after her transplant.
After a heart transplant, Becky, right, is now training for the Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Becky Pomerleau.

Her rehabilitation therapists got her on her feet as quickly as possible, then strapped monitors to her body and let her start jogging on a treadmill.

Becky and her husband met when both were living in Colorado, but they now live in Silicon Valley where she works for PayPal and her husband works for GoPro.

On a recent trip to a park near their home in California, Becky had a breakthrough moment. Her husband and his buddy regularly run together. Before the heart attacks, Becky easily kept up with the guys.

When surgeons removed Becky’s diseased heart and implanted the new one, they had to sever the nerves that connect her heart to the brain. That means Becky’s heart can’t send signals to her brain when she’s challenging herself physically. So Becky has to be careful to warm up gradually and track her heart rate so it doesn’t go too high.

Becky and Jeremiah Pomerleau pose in formal attire at an event promoting the American Heart Association.
Becky has shared the story of her heart transplant at events for the American Heart Association and the Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast. Photo courtesy of Becky Pomerleau.

To keep her heart rate at safe levels, Becky mostly runs at her own pace.

But on the day when Becky ran with the guys, her legs flew, her heart pounded and she felt like her old self again.

“I actually kept up with them for a mile. It was downhill. It was still hard, but it felt great. I totally had that adrenalin rush,” Becky said.

Now, Becky’s training to compete again in all the races she used to love.

Her favorite is the 800-meter, which translates to about a half mile.

“There’s something special for me about that race,” Becky said.

Her personal record in the 800-meter back in college was 2 minutes 11 seconds.

Females who qualified for the Olympics then were running two minutes flat.

At the Transplant Games, Becky will be running more slowly, but that doesn’t matter. She’s alive and thrilled that she can compete again.

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“This will be my personal Olympics. One of the things I’m looking forward to most is the camaraderie of the team and meeting other transplant recipients, hearing their stories and learning what they’ve overcome,” Becky said.

During the games, which will take place Aug. 2-8, Becky plans to do other track races. She also played basketball and volleyball in high school, so if teams need another player, she’ll join those events too.

Transplant Games offer competition, camaraderie

New horizons keep opening for Becky.

In September, she climbed her first 14-er since her transplant. (Click here to read more about that adventure.)

Becky was a competitive runner in high school and college. Here she runs with a group of runners on a field. She's in the lead.
Becky was a competitive runner in high school and college. Photo courtesy of Becky Pomerleau.

That same month, Becky spoke to dozens of fellow tech colleagues at the quarterly Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast. (Click here to see her talk.) And, in 2016, she was a featured speaker at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women annual luncheon in San Jose.

Becky feels incredibly blessed that she can share her story publicly. PayPal has offered her great support. She knows other transplant recipients who feel they can’t share their stories because they worry about keeping jobs and health insurance. Becky, on the other hand, gets to be a transplant ambassador every day of her life.

“It’s a huge part of who I am. It has shaped my life and provides a great opportunity for me to talk about organ donation, women’s heart health and my faith. After all I’ve gone through, I feel like this is my calling.”

Becky frequently visits Colorado because she and her husband own a condo in Breckenridge. Whether she’s skiing, running, speaking in public or just living her everyday life, she remembers what a gift life is.

Becky jumping and smiling in a park.
Becky makes a point of celebrating life and spending time with friends and family. Photo courtesy of Becky Pomerleau.

She makes an effort to spend her time with people who are precious to her, like her husband, their parents and close friends.

“We make more time for friends and family,” she said.

Along with encouraging everyone she knows to sign up to be an organ donor and to treasure their lives, Becky also encourages people to pay attention to their health.

“Listen to your body. If it’s telling you that something is wrong, act on it.”