The birth of Billy Becerra’s son Rex on March 20 was a moment of great joy that soon turned into a heartbreaking struggle. Upon his arrival at San Dimas Hospital, Rex was diagnosed with aortic stenosis and a hyperplastic aortic arch, conditions which enabled blood to flow into his heart but not exit properly.
As a result, Rex’s heart swelled, forcing him to undergo open heart surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). Yet despite the valiant efforts made by its surgeons and staff over the next two weeks, Becerra, his wife Elisha and two-year-old daughter Nina lost Rex when he passed away on April 4.
In honor of Rex and the CHLA surgeons and staff who helped them throughout the infant’s battle to survive, Becerra has already raised $106,000 for the hospital via pledge drives, including his participation with a team of family and friends in the CHLA fundraiser Walk LA. On Sept. 17, the longtime Monrovia resident will raise even more money when he participates in the second day of the two-day Nautica Malibu Triathlon presented by Equinox, taking part in a one-mile ocean swim, 25-mile bike ride and a six-mile run in the hopes of showing other grieving parents they are not alone and can also survive their tragic losses.
“After living at CHLA for the two weeks we were there, I came to realize it’s the only hospital in this area that’s equipped to handle these types of conditions,” says Becerra. “Although our situation isn’t as successful as we hoped it to be, we could see a lot of kids there who wouldn’t have survived in other places around the country.
“We also found out that on the financial side, they didn’t turn away anybody who needed the care if they couldn’t afford it,” adds Becerra. “Their mission is to save kids’ lives, nothing more than that. I think most kids couldn’t pay for it, but CHLA still stands up and saves their lives while surviving on donations, and I knew I could help by raising a little bit of money for them.”
The triathlon draws more than 5,000 participants annually, including celebrities such as Matthew McConnaughey and Jennifer Lopez, and has raised more than $10 million for CHLA’s pediatric cancer research program in the past decade. Becerra’s preparation for the endurance event has taken over much of his life outside of work, as he alternates running through the foothills, biking along the Santa Fe Dam and swimming 65 laps at the local YMCA’s 25-yard pool each day.
“It’s a mixture of training times, because it’s sometimes early before work, sometimes when I get home,” explains Becerra. “I get home about 6 p.m., drop everything and start because if I don’t, I’ll watch TV instead. If I go straight in and head out the door, I’ll get moving. I plan to run five miles today, and more often than not I’ll keep going. Right now in summer, the sun is out so it’s not bad getting home, but in winter, I had to run in the dark a lot of the time and that was harder.”
The pace will grow more intense in the coming weeks, as the 31-year-old Becerra has joined a group of ocean swimmers in Corona Del Mar after taking a triathlon-sponsored clinic in the sport through the Malibu Swim Club. He also bought a new bike and wetsuit for his triathlon preparation, but through it all, he finds his motivation in the courage he observed from other children at the hospital.
“When the going gets tough, I like to humble myself and realize there’s kids out there going through real pain,” says Becerra, who works as a heavy-construction equipment manager. “When I’m training and I feel it’s too hot, or it’s raining or my legs are burning, it’s a way to remind me of that. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s a way to release anger or stress because of it, but it kind of is. It’s a way I can burn off some steam.”
Becerra and his wife had opted to have Rex delivered in the much smaller San Dimas Hospital because they originally believed that new parents would receive less attention in a larger facility. Yet he notes that after they transferred Rex’s care to CHLA, he was surprised to find that the doctors and nurses there took great strides to establish personal connections with their patients and their families.
“It didn’t seem like a job to them, like they would have done it regardless of if they were getting paid,” recalls Becerra, who studied business at Cal State Fullerton before working in civil engineering en route to his current career. “Doctors were there in 24-hour shifts, and it seemed like they were putting in that kind of time because they cared. It was an amazing hospital but, unfortunately, we’ve come to realize we’d not have a better outcome at any other hospital.”
Regarding his wife, Elisha, as his biggest supporter, Becerra notes that she cooks him special training dinners and encourages him to keep going when he falters. An avid skydiver, he has also received plenty of help from that community, with his favorite diving company Go Jump Oceanside teaming with Liquid Sky Sports to provide his uniform for the race.
“I sell skydiving equipment on the side. Everybody thinks that skydivers are crazy people with a suicide wish,” says Becerra. “But they’re people who understand how fragile life is and want to live it. And my wife knows that this is a time of sacrifice right now, but it’s one we have to make.”
As he looks back on his memories of Rex, Becerra notes that while his son was in an intensive care unit throughout his brief life, he still has plenty of happy memories of him.
“There were definitely moments that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” says Becerra. “He might have had problems, but he was awake, he was a baby. He was alert, he’d react, and showed signs of personality when they were giving him a bath.
“It was interesting because the way his responses were, it was like we were in panic and he was relaxed, like he was there to comfort us,” he continues. “Watching him go through this, he was like a soldier going off to war, he was fighting it. At a couple days old, it was really incredible to see that. It gave me a different perspective on life, to be a little bit more selfless. Whatever situations I could have in work or traffic is really nothing to complain about, because there’s kids out there really fighting and they don’t deserve that.”
The Nautica Malibu Triathlon Presented by Equinox takes place from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Sept. 16 -17 at Zuma Beach, 30000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. The race starts near Lifeguard 14 station. Registration is $220-$450. For more information on registration and spectator rules, visit nauticamalibutri.com.