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From heart transplant recipient to serious runner

This is an excerpt from Second Wind by Lee Bergquist.

A Picture of Health

Osterman lives in Loveland, a suburb of Cincinnati, in an immaculate split-level home. The ceiling of the living room reaches two stories and looks out on his backyard. The grass was lush from recent rains, and Osterman was itching to mow it. We were sitting in his kitchen and he drank from a bottle of water ("Hydrating," he said, for the Flying Pig). For the next two days, he would almost always have a bottle of water in his hand. It dawned on me: Carrying the water, his impressive physique, his tan (touched up at a tanning parlor), and certainly his running were all part of his persona. Osterman wants the world to know he is a very healthy man.

His wife, Carole, walked into the kitchen. She is warm, sunny, and outgoing. It's hard to imagine a time when the world was crumbling around her. As her husband was dying, she was holding down a part-time job with a florist and raising their two sons, Jason, who was then nine, and Danny, who was seven. "We just kind of existed," she said. "We just kind of lived day to day. I never looked past the next day."

Greg repeated what he had told me several times: "Carole had the worst of it," he said. "I was not functioning. I knew in my mind I was getting worse and worse. I would tell Carole that I didn't want to be here in the house because I thought I was going to go, I was going to die."

Then his father died. Osterman has no recollection of it. He was too sick to go to the funeral.

Greg's donor, he would learn, was an 18-year-old woman who had been killed in a crash near Dayton, Ohio. On October 26, 1992, Carole got a call from the hospital. "They called to say that they had a donor heart and that (Greg) was on the way to UC hospital for the surgery," she recalled. "I was in shock. I walked into the backyard. A neighbor was there and I told him, ‘Greg's going to get a new heart.' He didn't know what to say to me-we just looked at each other."

Afterward he was on a respirator, and for three days Carole was at his bedside trying to get him to wake up and breathe on his own.

"When I came to, it was like, ‘Wow!' It was something strange," he said.

"You are aware of everything. I knew where I was. I knew who the people were. It was an instant feeling of being better. Everything was working again." He left the hospital after 14 days. At home, he walked to the grocery store and carried home jugs of milk to build up his strength. He was so weak Carole kidded him that he teetered on his walks like Charlie Chaplin.

But then his weakened condition conspired against him. Three months after the transplant, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare outcome of transplant surgery. He underwent more surgery. This time it was to remove 18 inches of small intestine and 12 inches of large intestine, his gall bladder, and part of his colon. Osterman tried getting healthy again as doctors struggled to find the right balance of medications to fight rejection and ward off a new invasion of cancer cells. He spent much of the next year on disability. Insurance and Medicaid paid for nearly all of the $500,000 in medical bills.

Osterman also struggled emotionally. He was taking up to 30 pills a day-a constant reminder he wasn't out of the woods. His heart had failed him. Then he got cancer. What would happen next?

Life is a series of altered expectations and how we respond to setbacks can be defining moments in our lives. Osterman desperately wanted to be healthy again. He attacked his recovery with a vengeance. He listened to what his doctors were telling him. He drank grape juice by the gallons. He ate egg whites and lots of fruits and vegetables. After spending so long depending on others, he wanted to be able to support his family again. He longed to get back to work. The hard, dirty work of installing plumbing on construction sites would validate his recovery well before he thought of running a marathon.

After high school, "Greg was going through jobs all of the time," Vanden Eynden recalled. "But when he got into plumbing, he found something he really liked."

Exercise became a means to an end. He loved being part of a crew that started with dirt and turned it into buildings. He wanted to make sure that if he returned, he could carry his load. "I knew that if I wanted to get back into it, I had a long way to go," Osterman said. "That's really why I started pushing myself to get back into that lifestyle-because that's all I knew." Three years after his heart transplant, at 40, he went back to work.

Walking had become a key to his recovery, and one day he suddenly broke into a slow jog. "I didn't even know if I could run," he said. "I picked it up a little bit and said to myself, ‘Man, this doesn't feel too bad, and I don't feel too bad. I think everything is working. Let's try keeping this going and see how everything goes.'" He could feel his heart pounding-it was working. "It gave me a sense of well-being," he said. "This thing is really pumping and I'm feeling really good. I just wanted to keep it going."

In March 1994, there was a fund-raiser called the Heart Mini-Marathon, and he set his sights on being in it. As it drew closer, his exercise regimen was going so well that he decided to run the 5K in the morning and walk 6 miles with Carole in the afternoon.

"When he told us that he was going to run, we said, ‘You're nuts,'" said Vanden Eynden. "‘You're lucky to be alive.'"

His medical team was also apprehensive. "They told me if I started to get light-headed, I had to stop," he said. "They said it was just like the throttle on your car: If I started it too fast, I would stall. It kind of gave me a scare." He started slowly-about 11 minutes a mile-and ended at a jogger's pace of 9 minutes and 30 seconds a mile.

"When I finished, it gave me a shot of confidence that you couldn't believe," he said. "When someone tears into you and starts pulling things out of you, and then they say, ‘OK, you are OK to go,' you just don't know if you are or not. It was a big shot in the arm. Everything the doctors were doing, and all of the work I was doing, it all came together. It told me I could move on."

He also started thinking about running a marathon. He had never been a jogger. He knew nothing about the aerobic world-to run simply for the joy of running. Construction work had been his exercise. At 5-feet-8 and 170 pounds (173 cm, 77 kg), he was built more like a shortstop than a runner.

"The remarkable achievement about Greg is that he hadn't done any of this stuff before," said Les Potapczyk, a marathoner from Niagara Falls, Ontario, he met through running. "Greg wasn't a runner. For him to have an almost revelation, to say, ‘I have to do something to keep me going,' to me, that's just phenomenal."

"When I first started running," Osterman said, "it was kind of a challenge. I went out real slow-5Ks, 10Ks-and then I got to a point that I could do those fairly easily. I thought that maybe with a little help I could stretch this out to a marathon."

He joined Team in Training, a program of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for aspiring citizen athletes. TNT uses coaches and mentors so participants can run or walk a marathon or half marathon, complete a triathlon, or cycle a 100-mile bike ride. TNT has the double-barreled effect of helping people achieve their goal of knocking off a significant aerobic milestone while helping collect donations.

Osterman's group ran once during the week and again on Saturday mornings. "He was always a little antsy and that made me worry about him," recalled Charlene Doran, a TNT mentor who had started running only a year and a half earlier. Osterman can get restless, chafing to cut the lawn, for example, and he's perpetually early for appointments. "Sometimes he was so anxious to get going that he would take off before some of the other runners had even gotten there," Doran said.

TNT offered the help he needed. He was getting coaching and tips on nutrition, injuries, and race strategy. Over a span of five months, he followed a plan to ramp up his training runs to 10 miles, then 15 miles, and finally, 20 miles (16, 24, and 32 km).

More Excerpts From Second Wind