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Ultimate tragedy motivates Becerra to enter Nautica Malibu Triathlon

Billy Becerra, 31, holds his newborn son, Rex, who received treatment at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles this spring. While at the hospital, Becerra signed up to do his first Nautica Malibu Triathlon to honor the care the medical staff gave to his late son. Photo by Elisha Becerra
Lauren Coughlin, Editor
9:30 am PDT August 15, 2017

On April 4, 2017, Billy Becerra held his newborn son, Rex Michael, one last time. 

It was the 16th day in the hospital for the Becerra family, who was sent to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles when other hospitals said that treatment of their child’s heart condition was too complicated for their staff. 

Despite the tragic outcome, CHLA’s care and dedication encouraged the family’s 31-year-old patriarch, of Monrovia, to give back to the hospital, and he chose to do so through a tall task: his first triathlon. 

On Sept. 16, Becerra will be cheered on by his wife, Elisha, and his 2-year-old daughter, Nina, as he competes in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon’s Herbalife International Distance Race.

“Of course, [because of] my stupidity or my pride I decided to pick the long course rather than the short one even though I’ve never done it before,” Becerra said.

Becerra has one marathon under his belt as well as a smattering of mud runs and a half marathon which he has competed in over the past four or five years. For the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, Becerra said he hopes to be “in the competitive category timeframe,” and he is aiming to finish in under three hours.

Becerra also took fundraising by the horns, amassing a whopping $106,000 for CHLA, in part due to the fame of his father-in-law, Michael Anthony, the former bassist of Van Halen.

“It started out small,” Becerra said. “ ... Originally, we thought, OK, maybe we can raise like $15,000 or something. Word spread.”

It’s easy to imagine why. Rock star or not, the family’s story is harrowing.

Rex Michael — named after Billy’s grandfather, Rex, and Elisha’s father, Michael — was born via an emergency C section on March 20. Immediately, Billy said he knew something was wrong.  

“When they brought him out, he was lifeless and they resuscitated him, and that was like a really surreal moment,” Becerra recalled.

After he was resuscitated, the doctor told Becerra that his son’s heart didn’t sound normal — and he was quickly transported to a second hospital, where the medical staff took X-rays on his heart before determining that CHLA was where the family belonged. 

There, they got some answers.

“He had aortic stenosis, which means that his aorta was significantly smaller than it needed to be,” Becerra explained. “ ... Blood pumps into the heart, but it cant get out of the heart.”

At 6 a.m. the next day, Rex was scheduled for his first surgery. The next week, he’d go in for open heart surgery.

“They did the surgery and they basically fixed his heart, but the damage that his heart had from the initial swelling, it made his heart really weak,” Becerra explained.

That’s when he was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, which essentially operates as the heart and lungs and helps to rid oxygen of carbon and pump it into the heart.

“They kind of forewarned me, if he’s not off this machine in three days, it’s not going to be good,” Becerra said.

The three days passed, and Rex never gained enough strength to get off the machine. Rex also displayed signs of his organ failure and brain damage from blood loss.

“There was nothing we could do,” Becerra said.

But even in the ultimate moment of loss, Becerra saw beauty at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“We saw a lot of success stories happening while we were there,” Becerra said. “We didn’t know if ours was going to be success or not; even though it wasn’t, just being there you could tell ... there was some kind of force saying we needed to help — whether it was to help our kids or other kids, it didn’t matter.”

Becerra recalls one CHLA patient in particular, a boy who he estimated was 8 years old and who was on and off the ECMO machine — the same machine Rex had been put on — and recovering when the Becerra family was leaving.

“He was old enough to have fear,” Becerra said. “An infant, they don’t have fear, they don’t know life or death or anything, but that 8-year-old did.”

Becerra said he felt “compelled to help in any way [he] could.”