“One year from now, I'm going to bike ride from my house to this hospital,” thought then-20-year-old Omar Romero as he huffed and puffed after walking from one end of his hospital bedroom to the other. His muscles had atrophied after being bedridden for nearly two weeks with a fever. He needed to exercise to regain strength, and until he could consider embarking on the 80-mile trek from his Mission Viejo home to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood—at that point, he had to relearn how to walk a few yards without panting.
Romero was suffering from a rare disease that hits one in a million people in the United States per year: severe aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow stops functioning and doesn't produce enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The causes for acquired aplastic anemia, as opposed to the inherited type, are unknown. The former struck Romero.
Romero noticed the subtle symptoms after he got bruised at a concert. Tiny round spots known as petechiae surfaced on his skin as a result of his capillaries bursting from the low level of platelets. His gums bled often. He was admitted to Saddleback Memorial in March 2011, and transferred nine days later to the UCLA hospital after a biopsy results showed all the signs for aplastic anemia.
Whereas the average person's level of platelets ranges from 150,000 to 400,000, Romero's level lingered at 4,000, putting him at risk for a brain hemorrhage.
Romero needed a bone marrow transplant, and fortunately, his 14-year-old sister was a match. He underwent chemotherapy until he received the transplant on May 2, 2011. Some complications ensued, like a fever that had Romero in bed for twelve days. He was frustrated because he had lived an active lifestyle filled with biking, running and skateboarding. At one of his weakest points, however, Romero resolved to do what only the strong and healthy could accomplish: an 80-mile bike ride. Romero was discharged in late June.
One year later, Romero hopes to follow through on that resolution by biking from Mission Viejo, through Lake Forest, Newport Beach, Seal Beach, Long Beach, Riviera, Redondo Beach, Marina Del Ray, Santa Monica to the Westwood hospital. The ride will start this Saturday, June 16.
“It marks one year of being healthy,” he says. It also marks the day he turns 22.
So far, 64 people are attending the ride, according to the Facebook event page where Romero has outlined a route and rest stops. His best friend from Seattle is flying down to join him, as well as Romero's physician, hematology and oncology specialist Dr. Ronald Paquette. The two connected on their shared interest for independent music during Romero's three-month hospital stay. Dr. Paquette, who's a long distance runner himself, was surprised when his former patient told him about the 80-mile mission.
“In all the time I've been here [at the hospital], there is nobody I know who has done something approaching this [after recovery],” he says.
He says Romero is physically capable and healthy enough to make the 80-mile journey. He views Romero's idea as a self-empowering tool, and hopes it will encourage other patients to do something ambitious after their recovery process.
“It puts some of the process of recovering from a life-threatening illness back into the patient's control,” Dr. Paquette says. “Knowing that you're not helpless and you can participate in your recovery. It's not just a doctor helping you but you helping yourself.”
Dr. Paquette plans to bike with Romero for 40 miles after he finishes an overnight shift at the hospital. Romero bikes and runs daily in preparation for this Saturday's trek; he also rock climbs and swims to help build up his endurance. The longest distance he ever biked was 30 miles, he said. He's nervous about the trip, but that's not stopping him, he says.
“I still don't think I'll be able to do this,” Romero says. “But I'll do it anyway.” Romero's father will accompany him in a car with water and bike repair equipment.
The bike ride is expected to start at 9 a.m. and go until 3 p.m., and it will be followed by a concert where Romero hopes to raise funds to cover his medical bills.