By Leslie Ridgeway
World champion bicycle racer Tara Unverzagt was diagnosed 13 years ago with factor five leiden, which causes dangerous blood clots. Unverzagt faced taking blood thinners for the rest of her life, and being forced to stop bike racing because of the risk of serious bleeding after a fall or collision. Then she met Ilene Weitz, assistant professor of clinical medicine in hematology at Keck Medicine of USC.
“I wouldn’t be on my bike if it wasn’t for her,” said Unverzagt, 50, a Torrance resident.
Unverzagt took up racing eight years ago to encourage her son, who needed a Boy Scout merit badge in cycling, and to get in shape and lose weight. She joined a bicycle club, the South Bay Wheelmen, entered competitions and steadily improved.
Unverzagt suffered her first blood clot 13 years ago, before she had begun focusing on racing. The next clot menaced her four years ago, in the middle of a competition. Warned by doctors not to participate in racing ever again, she heard about Weitz and set up a consultation. Weitz placed her on a protocol to get her off blood thinners that worked for a time, but Unverzagt was not out of danger.
“Everything was going great until last summer, when I was in the middle of an elite state championship, and I got another clot,” she said. “Dr. Weitz gave me a drug that thins the blood for 12 hours that you take once a day. So, I go out for a ride, then take the blood thinner when I get back. I have found a balance.”
The balance must be working. In early October 2013, Unverzagt won first place in four out of five races (and a silver in the fifth) at the Master Track World Championship in Manchester, England.
“I knew I could win one, and when I did, I thought the rest of the week would just be fun,” she said. “I have to say the stars aligned, and everything worked out perfectly. Of course, it’ll never happen again!”
No matter where bicycle racing takes Unverzagt, she is sure Weitz will be along for the ride.
“She is accommodating, figuring out how I can realistically do what I want to do without taking outrageous risks,” she said. “When I got the last clot, I needed her help on a weekend. How many doctors are available on a Saturday night? I think she and I are stuck with each other for quite a long time.”