Runners Who Overcame Heart Problems

Running After a Heart Transplant

The beat goes on for these heart-transplant recipients who put their new tickers to the test and kept running after this major surgery

Running with a heart transplant

Image: Max Dolberg

Justin Feria felt the morning chill across his skin and shook loose, his measured breaths crystallizing before him. Beneath the surface, though, pumped a heart that stirred a warming brew of emotions. It was here in Carlsbad, California, not far from the start of this half-marathon, that his heart donor died in a car accident. He was running today not just for himself, but also for the woman whose presence he could feel on every step of the course, with every beat in his chest.

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Feria, 30, was joined that January morning by two other San Diego heart-transplant recipients, Robert French, 46, and Bryon Moore, 52. The men became friends through the transplant "alumni" community at Sharp Memorial Hospital, where all three had their operations. It was on a visit they paid to another Sharp patient that Feria pitched running Carlsbad. That race went so well that they then committed to finishing San Diego's half-marathon Triple Crown by running the La Jolla Half in April and America's Finest City in August.

Though all three had once been at least semi-regular runners, none had done a race since receiving their transplants (French in 2008, Feria in 2009, and Moore in 2010). "Once you have a heart transplant, you're different than everybody else," Moore says. "Your resting heart rate is higher. It takes you longer to warm up and for your muscles to get fed. It's a whole different type of race."

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Brian Jaski, M.D., the cardiologist at Sharp who worked with all three men, stepped in and tailored a specific training plan for each of the guys-and ran all three races with them for good measure. He performed an echocardiogram on each of them as they ran on a treadmill to determine how much effort their hearts could tolerate. He prepped them for running the hills through Torrey Pines Natural Reserve in La Jolla and in the heat at America's Finest City.

In the meantime, Feria, French, and Moore trained on their own following the Galloway run-walk method. They exchanged texts, e-mails, and phone calls about their progress and became unlikely friends in the process. Feria, a soft-spoken guest-services professional for the San Diego Padres, had overcome a lifetime of tragedy-his parents both died when he was a child (his father suffered a heart attack), and he went on the transplant waiting list at age 26 because of his own enlarged heart. French, a stoic Navy veteran working toward a bachelor's degree in computer-information systems, received his transplant after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart as well. Moore, an earnest ex-paramedic, suffered an arrhythmia and later a virus that would require a new heart.

"Once you get your new heart, it's like this secret decoder ring; you're in this little club," says Moore, who refers to Feria as his little brother. And as with any fraternal relationship, the three men raced with a healthy dose of competition. French was the first of the trio to finish Carlsbad with a time of 2:51; Feria beat his elders at La Jolla in 2:52 and topped them again with a 2:51 on a scorching hot day at the America's Finest City half.

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"I looked at Justin after seeing our gun times from the America's Finest City race and said, 'You sonuvabitch! You beat me by six minutes!'" Moore says. "He cleaned my clock."

Moore doesn't know anything about his donor other than that he was a 17-year-old male. The wife of French's donor hasn't reached out to him, but French has befriended the man's parents. "We keep in contact and talk, and it helps them," he says.

After crossing the finish line in the dog-day heat at America's Finest City and then celebrating with his "brothers," Feria thought about the woman who in death had given him life. He has written to his donor's family to express his gratitude. "Me going out, living life and running, that's the best way to honor her," he says. "It was all possible because of her."

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