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The transplant was only the first part of the challenge

A 30-year-old with new lungs is determined not to let cystic fibrosis stop her. She'll compete in a triathlon Sunday.

March 30, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Monique Mendoza's cystic fibrosis was so debilitating three years ago that taking a shower left her exhausted and nearly breathless. The disease had not only clogged her lungs, but also sapped her strength and spirit.

"I had my funeral planned. I was OK with ... dying," said Mendoza, a 30-year-old resident of Rancho Santa Margarita. "I had already been to a lot of my friends' funerals with CF, so I knew what they were like."

Today, Mendoza, with her infectious laugh and two new lungs, will board a plane for the Big Island of Hawaii, where she will attempt the unthinkable -- complete a triathlon Sunday on Waikoloa Beach: a 1-mile swim, 6-mile run and 25-mile bike ride.

"Once she had surgery, I was hoping she could go back to doing normal things -- taking a shower, going out with her friends without an oxygen tank and going to the grocery store by herself," said A. Purush Rao, Mendoza's physician and a pulmonologist at USC University Hospital. "The natural step for patients with a double lung transplant is to go out and do the things they've never been able to do. But a triathlon is a fabulous, highly unusual step."

Cystic fibrosis affects about 30,000 people in the United States, mainly young adults and children. Living past 20 was once unusual for those afflicted with cystic fibrosis, a frequently fatal genetic disease that causes the body to produce a thick mucus, clogging the lungs and obstructing the pancreas. As surgery techniques and medicine have improved, the average life expectancy of those with the disease has increased to 37. One patient at USC's cystic fibrosis center is 64.

Mendoza has recovered so well from transplant surgery that some who swim alongside her every day at the Saddleback College pool were shocked to learn of her condition. "You're serious?" asked Fermin N. Camarena, a 53-year-old stroke victim from San Juan Capistrano. "You could never tell. She's very composed, and she has such a great spirit. And she goes like the wind in the water."

Mendoza said much of her fighting spirit comes from her faith in God.

"There's a lot of hills around here in Mission Viejo," she said. "When I'm climbing up them, I can tell that he's there with me. I know I wouldn't be here without him. I'm really amazed how long he's had me here."

Because she doesn't know how long her new lungs will last, she's prepared to make the most of her second chance at life.

Although she was a cheerleader throughout high school and college and played field hockey in high school, Mendoza didn't consider herself much of an athlete. She was more a follower than doer, keeping statistics for the swim, volleyball and basketball teams at Glendora High.

But months before being given a new set of lungs, Mendoza started dreaming of competing in a triathlon.

"I was sleeping 14 hours a day and taking naps in between," she said. "Somewhere in there, I starting thinking crazy thoughts about finishing a triathlon. Don't ask me why."

Mendoza, all 5 foot 1, 110 pounds of her, began training for the Lavaman Triathlon last September, just 21 months after leaving USC University Hospital, where she spent a month recovering from surgery. Rao, Mendoza's doctor, has encouraged his patient, but he has also closely monitored her condition for signs that the training may be overtaxing her body.

"Just the fact that she hasn't had any setbacks means that her lung transplant has been successful," Rao said.

While swimming, biking and running, each twice a week, Mendoza is also pumping her body full of medication to decrease the chance of rejection and infection. She's also taking pills to combat the medication's side effects, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

As she finished an interview, her hands began to shake when she grabbed a training drink as another complication of her disease -- diabetes -- kicked in. "I guess I have low blood sugar," Mendoza said, laughing.

Her daughter's diabetes is one more thing Emma Mendoza could spend her day worrying about. But she'd rather not.

"When Monique was younger, she'd want to do all these things her older brothers were doing," she said. "But I held her back because of her disease. But now, I can't stop her from living. Sure, I'm afraid, but I'm also supportive."

Rao expects Sunday's race to be far more challenging and dangerous than anything Mendoza has encountered during training.

"Most people train in segments and never do it all in one day," he said. "This event is going to be quite a strain. The time when you need your body to recover is not there because of the competition. Each stage increases the strain and stress on the body."

Not to worry, Mendoza said.

"I'm not trying to finish first," she said. "If I have to stop, I will. You have to listen to your body."

If she becomes one of the first double lung transplant patients to complete a triathlon Sunday, Mendoza said, she won't stop there. Back in school at Saddleback, Mendoza is aiming for straight A's.

"I'd also like to become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, enter that Baja truck race, learn to surf and maybe have lunch with the president. I know. It's crazy, right?"

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dave.mckibben@latimes.com

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