How a local coach got back on her feet
LOCK HAVEN — “And, she scoops! She wants to work at the ice cream shop,” jokes Coach Heather Leverington, the co-head men’s and women’s outdoor and indoor track and field coach at at Lock Haven University. She’s watching one of her student-athletes perform the shot put during practice on a sunny but cool April afternoon.
Heather’s coaching is laid back but firm. She never lets her athletes slack, but she jokes with them like a cool older sister. And they hang on to her every word, because they know what she went through to be there at practice with them.
By the time Heather graduated from Emporia State University in Kansas in 2002, she was a five-time national champion (two outdoor titles and three indoor) in the shot put from 1999 to 2001, a nine-time Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) champion and a seven-time All-American. She made it to the Olympic Trials in 2000.
But in 2004, while training for the Olympic Trials again during graduate school at the University of South Dakota, Heather began having problems recovering from workouts.
For the decorated athlete who worked her way from having no state titles in high school to having the second-best throw ever in Division II, her muscle and joint pain indicated there was something wrong.
Doctors diagnosed her with lupus, an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, and put her on autoimmune suppressants.
She stopped training for the Olympic Trials and turned to coaching, accepting an assistant coaching job at her alma mater ESU.
But that was just the beginning of Heather’s problems.
Heather became the head coach for the men and women’s track and field teams at LHU in 2006, at age 27. In her first year, she was voted the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s men’s coach of the year.
That same year, she started having trouble breathing and in 2007 was diagnosed with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness. The disease can make it difficult to move around, and certain complications include shortness of breath or respiratory failure due to chest muscle inflammation.
Heather explained the condition as, “my body was attacking my lungs.” Doctors started her on a medicine regimen that got her symptoms under control.
“We had a speeding train…and we got it to slow down,” said Heather.
Then, in 2010, she started requiring oxygen to go through daily life. Her blood pressure was falling below 90/60, a condition known as hypotension. It means that the blood flow in Heather’s body was too low to bring enough oxygen and nutrients to her organs. At that time, she also started seeing a pulmonologist at UPMC Pittsburgh.
Things came to a head when in 2012, she took an overseas flight to the Canary Islands in Spain with her husband for vacation.
Cabin air pressure is relatively low, reducing the amount of oxygen carried in the blood. While it contains enough oxygen for healthy passengers, those with heart and lung diseases may struggle with the reduced oxygen level.
And that’s exactly what happened to Heather.
She passed out during the flight and had to spend her entire vacation in the hospital.
After that, things began to deteriorate for Heather. She was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which she described as “high blood pressure for the lungs.” The condition causes the arteries in the lungs to narrow, reducing blood flow through the lungs and causing low levels of oxygen in the blood when the blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries gets too high.
Though she could still move around, Heather was on oxygen full-time and had severe muscle and joint pain. She still managed to show up to her coaching job, but she was in a wheelchair, carrying around six liters of oxygen.
“To go from being an Olympic Trials competitor to having what little lung capacity she had before the transplant had to have been incredibly frustrating and depressing for anyone, let alone someone with such an active lifestyle,” said Danielle Barney, the associate director of athletics and senior women’s administrator.
Barney has known Heather since she came to Lock Haven as track and field head coach about 12 years ago.
“I think her athletes were probably some of the biggest supporters and so accepting, which was really nice to see. Her athletes knew more about her oxygen, how to recharge it, the wheelchair and how to load (and) unload it from vehicles, than anyone,” she said.
Heather said sometimes her athletes would ride around on the back of her wheelchair to offset the weight of the oxygen as she would traverse up and down the hill that leads to the track. “They’d respond immediately,” she said, when Heather’s oxygen batteries started beeping to alert her that she would run out of supplemental oxygen soon.
“She had to rework how she coached in order to help her throwers, in particular, and all our track and field student-athletes,” said Barney. “I think the time away due to doctor’s visits or illness was also a challenge since a life in collegiate athletics demands a lot of a coach’s time. She cared about her student-athletes and to be away during certain stretches of time required some adjustment.”
Co-Head Men’s and Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country Coach Aaron Russell said he thought Heather’s inability to demonstrate what she was coaching while in a wheelchair actually made her a better coach. The year before Heather went on leave, the men’s outdoor track and field team made it to the PSAC championships and placed fourth in the team standings, with one javelin thrower winning gold, a discus thrower taking third and runners winning big in the 1,500 meter run.
“She’s just done such amazing things,” said Russell of Heather.
By the time 2015 rolled around, Heather and her husband decided they wanted to start a family.
But, she said, “no high-risk (pregnancy) doctor will even touch you if you have lung hypertension.”
So they started discussing Heather getting a lung transplant. She spent two years trying to get onto the transplant list, and in March 2016 she finally did.
She got a call about two weeks later saying there was a pair of lungs available for transplant. But they turned out not to be viable, and she resumed her wait, showing up to her job every day on oxygen.
Then, on Nov. 7, 2016 she got a phone call. “Get to Pittsburgh,” the hospital told her. There were lungs available. But first, they asked her if she would participate in research. She said yes.
About 70 to 80 percent of donor lungs never make it to transplant because they are so damaged upon death. To make more donor lungs viable, researchers at the University of Toronto developed a method of preserving and preparing lungs for transplant called Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion (EVLP). That method is currently not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But because Heather agreed to be part of a clinical trial, doctors were going to perform EVLP on her donor lungs.
Heather’s donor lungs were airlifted to Lung Biotechnology Public Benefit Corp in Silver Spring, Maryland, a subsidiary of the bioengineering company United Therapeutics Corp. There, the lungs were hooked up to an ex vivo machine which pumped them with clear fluids and nutrients to flush them of donor blood and bacteria and heal the tissue.
“They’re literally making the lungs work,” Heather said of the process.
Doctors at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center performed the very first successful EVLP transplant in September 2011. Before EVLP, donor lungs could only last outside the body for four hours. At the Lung Biotechnology Public Benefit Corp, they can last up to 22 hours on the machine.
Once Heather’s donor lungs were ready for transplant, researchers cooled them down, put them in a box and airlifted them back to Pittsburgh, where Heather endured 12 hours of surgery. The surgeons had to leave her chest open for a couple of days because her new lungs were so swollen.
She had a tracheotomy tube for over a month. But when they took it out, “I took my first breath and it was amazing,” Heather recalled.
While in the hospital, she had extreme fevers. “I was always like, “Turn the AC up!'” she said, laughing.
One day, she told one of her nurses she wanted to shave her head because she was so hot. She remembered her husband, Tony Dotterer, saying, “No you don’t, that’s the drugs talking!” But eventually, Heather convinced her nurse to shave her head.
Recovery was tough. Heather went through three months of rehab, and only “started to feel sort of normal” about six months after the transplant. She relied on her husband for care, and couldn’t drive for six months after she returned home.
She missed her job, her team, her sense of belonging.
When she returned to practice for the first time after surgery, it all felt worth it.
“It made me feel human again,” she said, through tears. “All my coworkers were super supportive.”
She officially returned to work on Sept. 11, 2017.
“My husband’s been such a big support,” she said. Russell also spoke highly of Dotterer, saying he always keeps the coaches in the loop on how Heather is doing and supports her through everything.
But while Heather was gone, the university never filled her position. Corina Robbins, the assistant women’s cross country/track and field coach, assisted Coach Russell, but they were spread thin. Chad Warren, the assistant men’s and women’s track and field coach, also helped, but no one had the same experience in shot put like Heather did. The university also did not raise the salaries of the coaches covering Heather’s position while she was on medical leave.
Heather’s athletes were not permitted to comment by name for this story, but some of them told me that while she was gone, they really missed her. They said they felt lost without a coach who had such expertise in their sport. When Heather came back, one athlete said she started setting personal records and saw the general performance of the team improve drastically.
Russell said the year Heather was gone was a stressful time for both the coaches and student-athletes.
“I give a tremendous amount of credit to her athletes,” he said. “Through it all, they’ve stuck with us…They’re inspired by her coming back.”
Both he and Heather referenced the seven senior athletes who took on the role of coach while Heather was recovering. Heather said she was so grateful that they stepped up for the good of the team.
“(Heather leaving) definitely gave her athletes an appreciation for how much she contributed to them,” said Russell. “Her absence brought us all together. Now that she’s back, it’s made them work extra hard.”
For Heather, the road is still fraught with complications. The odds of survival drop from 90 percent one year out to 50 percent three years after a lung transplant. But her positive and calm demeanor give no indication that she’s worried.
Her biggest triumph?
“That I got my life back,” she said. “I was struggling to get through day by day, I was in a wheelchair, carrying oxygen, and now I’m training again.”
Heather plans to participate in the Transplant Games in Salt Lake City this August.
And, she is looking forward to a new chapter in her life: motherhood.
“We didn’t think we’d be able to have children (before the surgery), but now we’re talking about surrogacy or adoption,” she said. Without needing her husband to care for her like before, Heather said they can both equally care for a child now.
Several months before Heather’s lung transplant, LHU quietly terminated her contract with the university. They had wanted to divide the men’s and women’s teams, and asked her if she was interested in the women’s head coach job.
She voiced her opposition to the split, saying the teams work better when they are coached together. She wanted to continue being co-head coach with Russell.
Two weeks later, the university rescinded its offer and ended Heather’s contract, effective June 30, 2018. The bottom of her evaluation simply read, “We want to take Track and Field programs in a different direction.”
A representative from the university athletics department said they could not comment on the matter.
For such a successful coach, the terms of her goodbye sting for those who have worked with her and been coached under her.
“I think this year, Heather’s very passionate about coaching…helping the young men and women find things in themselves they didn’t know they had,” said Russell, with a tinge of sadness.
Heather said she isn’t sure what is in store, but she knows God has a plan for her.
In the immediate future, she wants to get more involved in organ donation awareness. She is a member of both the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) and the Gift of Life.
“I’m excited to share with people my story and encourage them to become organ donors,” she said.
April is National Donate Life Month, in celebration and to raise awareness of organ donation.