Pittsburgh team races bikes to promote pulmonary hypertension awareness

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Patty George, a lung transplant surgeon at UPMC, set a challenge for herself and three other women outside of the operating room and onto the roads of America by entering a bicycle race across the country.

"I had the idea we could use the Race Across America as means of raising awareness about pulmonary hypertension and funds to find a cure," Dr. George said.

Their participation will be featured tonight in a segment of ABC's "Nightline" program.

Pulmonary hypertension is a disease that affects the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. When healthy, the pulmonary arteries are large and flexible. They tighten and stiffen in patients with the disease. The right ventricle of the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the arteries to the lungs. It grows bigger, compressing the left ventricle, which makes it harder for that side of the heart to circulate blood through the rest of the body. As the strain increases, the heart can fail.

Pulmonary hypertension is a rare but very serious disease. Blood clots in the lungs, HIV, use of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, liver and autoimmune diseases can cause it. There is no cure yet.

Stacie Truszkowski, an administrative assistant in the pulmonary division at UPMC and an avid mountain biker, agreed and joined with Dr. George to form Team PHenomenal Hope. They recruited Anne Marie Alderson, a quality engineering manager at Cook Myosite Inc. and a frequent competitor in marathons and triathlons, and Ryanne Palermo, a graduate student at Duquesne University and a frequent competitor in mountain bike races, to fill the team.

The Race Across America advertises itself as "The World's Toughest Bicycle Race." The first RAAM was in 1982. The course varies each year but always starts on one coast and ends on the other. Racers compete as individuals or as part of two-, four- or eight-person teams.

The race began June 20 in Oceanside, Calif., and ended 3,021 miles later in Annapolis, Md. It took Team PHenomenal Hope seven days, seven hours and 15 minutes -- second among four-woman teams.

"The German frauleins beat us by about 2½ hours," Dr. George said. "It was pretty close. Not bad for four rookies."

The women raced in pairs, in six-hour shifts.

"One person had to be on the road at all times," Dr. George said. "Two of us would go back and forth every 20 minutes for six hours, while the other two were in the RV eating or sleeping."

The chose to do six-hour shifts rather than the more customary eight-hour shifts because "when you do these shorter shifts, you can go at a higher speed," she said.

The "unsung heroes" in the race were the 13 people in the support crew, headed by crew chief Kate Bennett, an info tech at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. George said.

"They took extremely good care of us," she said. "They got our bikes ready, cooked for us, made sure we were getting enough fluids and wore sunscreen."

Jack Kelly: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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