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Aiea resident beat a prognosis of one year left to live

By Joie Nishimoto

LAST UPDATED: 4:01 p.m. HST, Mar 26, 2014

Twenty-one years ago, when William "Willy" Pelayo was 37 years old, he was told he had just one year left to live.

The Aiea resident had contracted a virus that resulted in cardiomyopathy, a type of progressive heart disease through which the heart can become abnormally enlarged. As a result, the heart muscle's ability to pump blood is weakened, often touching off heart failure.

Heart transplants were not available in Hawaii at the time. So Pelayo moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where his sister lived, and waited for a heart.

"I went to my sister's place and I couldn't stop crying. You know, you always think, 'Why me? Why me?' Back then, I used to like writing songs and playing guitar. I wrote a song about dying."

William "Willy" Pelayo
A 57-year-old who has undergone two heart transplants in battling cardiomyopathy, a progressive heart disease

When his doctor told him time was running out, Pelayo said, "I went to my sister's place and I couldn't stop crying. You know, you always think, 'Why me? Why me?'

"Back then, I used to like writing songs and playing guitar. I wrote a song about dying," he said with a laugh.

Pelayo can laugh now because his heart is pumping just fine these days.

"You gotta thank the man upstairs," Pelayo said in reference to his faith. His friends say he should also give himself credit for making health and fitness priorities in his life.

Before Pelayo became ill, he held down full-time and part-time jobs. He also led an active life and maintained a fairly fit profile at 160 pounds.

After undergoing his first eight-hour operation -- Pelayo has had two heart transplants -- he stayed in Albuquerque for a year until doctors deemed him healthy enough to go home. During that time, Pelayo said, medication played a large role in weight gain of about 100 pounds.

When the extra weight got in the way of simple tasks -- tying his shoelaces became a struggle -- Pelayo resolved to get in shape.

He purchased his first bicycle, a "cheap, three-speed bike," to kick off his fitness effort.

Nearly two decades later, Pelayo, 57, is an avid cyclist.

He's currently in training for the Haleiwa Metric Century Ride, slated for April 27. The 100-mile bike ride takes cyclists on a journey through Haleiwa to Kaaawa and back.

Cycle to the Sun, a grueling 36-mile, 10,000-foot climb to Haleakala's summit, is on his bucket list.

Pelayo's first transplanted heart lasted 10 years before it started pumping blood improperly. He ended up bedridden at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for six months.

"You don't want this on your worst enemy," he said of the half-year wait for a second transplant.

After his second surgery, Pelayo spent a year doing rehabilitative therapy before returning to Hawaii. Soon after he joined the Hawaii Bicycling League.

After a few years of involvement with the nonprofit's rides and events, friends bought him a bike for his birthday. That's when Pelayo decided to train for his first Century Ride.

These days, Pelayo also encourages noncycling friends to give the sport a try.

Evelyn Cabradilla and Shelly Cooper, both longtime runners, have mastered road-bike basics and now take part in cycling events.

"I learned a lot from him," Cooper said.

In an effort to return the favor, Cabradilla said she encouraged Pelayo to take up other fitness routines such as running, but he'd rather just cycle.

In another effort to pay it forward, Pelayo frequently visits hospitals to talk with patients awaiting organ transplants.

Pelayo maintains that his developing athlete's mentality is making a difference in his overall health. When life gets tough, he said, it's easy to get distracted. But a cyclist who wants to succeed stays focused on the course.

"The main thing is you can't give up."

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