Written by Chuck Finder
Her career path originally was headed nowhere near this route. A pulmonology expert? Preparing to race coast-to-coast on a bicycle? Somewhere along the way 20 years ago, Patty George’s life made a hairpin turn.
That was somewhere between Chicago’s west suburbs and Kodaira City, Japan.
“I actually lived in Naperville between college years,” said Dr. George, a 1991 graduate of Naperville North High School, where she played tennis, softball and the flute before heading to Duke University to study political science. “I initially was going to be in international relations. I learned Japanese. And I was in Japan at the time I made the decision,” working for a Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo on an exchange-program internship.
“Maybe when you’re out of your environment, you get introspective. I just had this sudden change in passions. I had this calling: I love relating to people and to science.”
Here she is, a generation later, a physician and assistant professor who specializes at the University of Pittsburgh and its Medical Center (UPMC) in lung transplant and pulmonary hypertension. . . when she isn’t riding mile after mile every dawn to ready herself for a nine-day, 24-hours-a-day Race Across America next June.
Talk about a journey.
Dr. George, 39, is meshing two of her passions in this 3.000-mile pursuit: People and science come together when she and three female friends as Team PHenomenal Hope attempt to pedal from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. – two at a time constantly on bikes – to raise awareness and donations for pulmonary hypertension (PH).
The only biking she did before her 30s: riding around the bucolic Duke campus, especially once she changed to a pre-med/political science dual major as a junior after that career-veering decision. Upon graduation, she returned home to Naperville to spend 1995-97 as a medical research technician in immunology at the University of Chicago. It was at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she took up running and participated in a marathon.
Then, in her second year at Pitt, 2005, she fell in with a group of triathletes and bicycle racers called Steel City Endurance and coached by Suzanne Atkinson. Dr. George started racing bikes. She spent February vacation weeks at a cycling camp in Tucson, Ariz. This idea began to germinate. . . .
Stacie Truszkowski, a colleague in Pitt’s Department of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, and she are the same age. “So a few years ago I tossed out this idea: ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do the Race Across America?’ “ Dr. George recalled. “I remember saying to Stacie, ‘When you turn 40, either you put black crepe paper and tombstones all over your front yard, or you do the Race Across America.’ Stacie was in.“
It remained strictly in the idea stage until 2010, when Dr. George found herself at the Pulmonary Hypertension Associationnational conference – where doctors sit next to patients, a rarity in the realm of such medical meetings. But PH is a disease with a narrow audience and a medical awareness issue, often getting misdiagnosed or mistaken for asthma. PH is a chronic, life-changing disease in which high blood pressure in the lungs creates a lack of blood flow to the left side of the heart and the rest of the body. It affects people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds.
Sitting in the audience during a presentation about a medical team that climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for PH, “It kind of clicked,” Dr. George said. “This could be how we could do something tremendous – the perfect charity to partner.”
“She kind of danced around the charity part until we had all of our members,” added Truszkowski, who turns 40 Sept. 30. “The two of us would laugh, thinking we would never find someone as crazy . . . to do this with us.”
Triathlete and engineering manager Anne-Marie Alderson of Washington, Pa., and Ryanne Palermo of Butler, Pa., pursuing her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science at Duquesne University, joined their foursome. They later added: Kate Bennett, an IT administrator at Carnegie Mellon University, as crew chief; Greta Daniels, director of alumni relations at Sewickley (Pa.) Academy, as alternate racer/crew chief; and Sara Harper of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, as an alternate racer/crew member.
Dr. George was profiled in the Regent Square (Pa.) Patch, where she is a resident, when the team was formally announced in July 2012 at the PHA annual meeting. The team has held numerous benefits over the past year and will take part in the Oct. 3Day of Giving along with events throughout November’s PH awareness month.
“We have a person with PH who’s doing a Tough Mudder,” she said, awed by the support displayed already. “There’s a PHA staff member who lives with PH, and he’s pledged to ride 3,000 miles from now through June with Team PH. And these type of events are called Unity Miles events – we are inspired by patients and supporters who are doing this with us. The passion of someone who has PH, you can’t match that, you know? It’s special.”
The team members also have been compiling miles -- in mountain or endurance events ranging from a Maryland climb called the Cranky Monkey to a 100-mile, mountain-bike race and a 200-mile race in Ohio patterned after the Race Across America. The weekend races are a diversion from their daily training or their wintertime work indoors at Cycling Fusion, an Oakmont, Pa., fitness center where they have done webcasts of benefit events.
“Here’s the deal: It’s really hard with my profession to fit in training,” Dr. George said. “So I get up early, somewhere before 5 a.m., and hit the streets. There’s nothing like getting out before the birds are up. It’s just you and a couple of cars. Peace.”
Naperville residents might catch her riding through their streets around the holidays.
“It’s a tradition of mine to have the last bike ride of the season [at Christmastime] or the first bike ride of the season [on New Year’s Day]. You’ll see me on the streets of Naperville with no other cyclists in crazy, cold weather,” she continued. “Usually I just ride out to St. Charles and Geneva, or maybe River Forest. I’ll go out for three, four hours. The thing is, the winds – they’ll get you. It gives you an appreciation of what we’re going to be facing in June.”