BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Thirty-one pulmonary hypertension patients surprised Patricia George, M.D., late Thursday night. She and her Team PHenomenal Hope crewmates pulled into a drug-store parking lot ready to make an exchange to the next set of riders taking the Race Across America, coast-to-coast course. Instead, this UPMC pulmonologist and team founder got the rock-star treatment.
Applause. Autographs. Cheers. Kudos. Songs. Signs. Hugs.
“It was amazing,” Dr. George said afterward, riding in the Team RV toward another Indiana town for another overnight of a light meal, a little sleep, and more rider exchanges for more miles in the morning. By the time she awoke Friday around 4:30 a.m., there were 696 miles still to go. Overcoming distance was a purpose asserted anew late Thursday, by the reaction and number of those PH patients – the people she calls “PHriends.” These folks, many carrying oxygen with them, are the ones for whom the Team rides 3,021 miles in this Race Across America (RAAM) to raise awareness and donations, hoping to find a cure for the debilitating and deadly high-blood pressure in the lungs.
Dr. George, a lung-transplant physician, has become a national PH spokesperson, and a video about the efforts of her team was scheduled to be screened Friday up the road in Indianapolis as the opening event to the annual, every-other-year Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA) conference. But the bus brimming with patients, accompanied by a car of PHA officials, and the cacophony that greeted Dr. George in an otherwise empty parking lot late Thursday left her overwhelmed.
“It just reaffirms why we’re doing this, for these folks. That [visit] was just…absolutely amazing,” she said.
The patients gave a similar greeting moments later to an arriving rider Anne-Marie Alderson, who is paired in tandem with Dr. George as two racers split as many as 110-mile “pulls” or shifts twice daily in RAAM, rotating every half-hour or 10 miles. Stacie Truszkowski, a colleague in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, and Ryanne Palermo consist of the other riders’ group. They all are physically worn down, sleep-deprived (lucky to catch three hours at a single time, if not a single day), eating quickly assembled, cycling-fuel meals whenever possible. So the boost from PH patients seemed to come just when needed.
“On the way down, we were singing the same song [“Happy”] that Patty and the Team were singing before they took off from California,” said patient – and PHfriend – Ornah Levy, a lawyer from Long Beach, Calif., who brought water and goodies to the team in Oceanside, Calif., the day before RAAM started. “We were all so moved and excited to see them and get an opportunity to show them how much they mean to us as a community. I am moved to tears when I think about what they’re doing: It’s a huge selfless act of courage. . . and, yup, just teared up again.
Levy said he was especially touched by crew members like Peter Kochupura, M.D., a pulmonologist at UPMC Passavant, who gave up all of his vacation time to drive the RV to California from Pittsburgh, and then turn around it drive it back during the race.
“The impact this is having, and going to have, is historic,” Levy said. “These women are doing what has never been done for us before – they are competing in a big, publicized, national and international event, and doing it for PH! ”
PHA President Rino Aldrighetti said Team PHenomenal Hope is inspiring the entire PH community. More than 73 related events have already been organized by patients and their families.
“We talk about medicine as science and, sometimes, art. What Dr. Patty George and her team are doing takes us to a new level – inspiration,” Aldrighetti said. “The PH community is with them every turn of the pedal, every mile of this race of our lives.”