It’s not surprising that Denise Hitzeman is asked to be a motivational speaker throughout California. Her story is as inspiring as it gets.

Seven years ago, Denise was diagnosed with hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), a vascular disorder that means her blood doesn’t carry enough oxygen. She had always been physically active. She was a dancer, followed a regular routine of cardio and weight training, and loved mountain and road biking. But something was wrong, and getting worse. “I never understood why I hated running,” she says, “why I was usually the one struggling during a workout.” Then she started passing out in gyms: “It’s funny how fast a club will release you from a one-year contract when you loose consciousness in their facility.” Less funny was the discovery that HHT was the reason.

Photo: Facchino Photography

Photo: Facchino Photography

Before long, Denise was on therapeutic oxygen 24/7, and many things we take for granted, like doing the laundry, were “workouts” for her. But she was determined not to let her disease define her life. With the help of pulmonary therapist Cathe Pleasant, who she describes as “my hero,” she began an intense training regime that, she says, “brought me back from barely being able to make my bed, or sing my children to sleep, to running the 10K Wharf to Wharf race.” Since then, she’s done another 10K race, three Bay Area Mermaid races, and a 25-mile bike race…all with heavy oxygen tanks strapped to her back, or in her panniers. “I am healthier today than I was before being diagnosed, physically and mentally.”

Denise credits her accomplishments more to others than to herself: to Cathe, to the friends and family who lined her first race to help switch out her tanks. “It takes a village to get me across the finish line. It was so amazing that so many people came together to help me realize my goal.”

It also takes a very special woman to work her workouts into a life that would put many of us down for the count. But, as Denise puts it, sharing her favorite quote, ““Life isn’t measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”


Home: Scotts Valley, CA
Occupation: Full time mom. Motivational Speaker. Entrepreneur.
Education: BS from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
Partner: Scott, married for 13 years.
Children: Two wonderful (99.9% of the time) children Madeline 11, and Alexander 7.
Age: 42
Height: 5’6”
Weight: I stopped stepping on the scale years ago.
Sports, past and present: Dance (modern and jazz), diving, surfing, cycling and now running.
Athletic accomplishments: Ran Wharf to Wharf  twice: first while pushing two ten-pound oxygen tanks, then while carrying an oxygen tank on my back in a hydration back pack.
Little known fact about you: I’m shy… really.
Environmentally incorrect preference: I have the reusable bags from every store, but I usually forget them in the car when I go shopping.
Guilty pleasure: Pirate Booty
Greatest triumph: Last Saturday riding with my friends and family in the Bike for Breath ride and watching my daughter finish her 18 miles, dashing across the finish line with the biggest smile on her face!
Favorite thing to do when not working or working out: Watching classic old movies during “family movie night” with all four of us squished together on the couch and sharing a big tub of popcorn. And, for my quiet, alone time—gardening.
Weekly Workout Schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays with my Better Breathers group at the Hospital, doing cardio and weight training. Then, I try one other day with my friends from the neighborhood, usually a walk along the beach or around the ‘hood’ while our children play in the park. Last, one day on the weekend with my family usually a hike in the park.
Moment of Inspiration: When my daughter was three years old and I was just put on oxygen 24/7, I was very depressed. As I’m crying, from the other room, my husband and I hear our daughter talking to the dog.  “C’mon Sam,” she said, “let’s go find mommy.” A  few seconds later Maddie enters our room with a huge smile, looks at the dog, and exclaims, “See Sam, I told you we would find her, all you have to do is follow the hose,” referring to the fifty-foot oxygen tube that wound through the house to me.  At that moment, I saw that I was no different from the mom Maddie had before. She didn’t see me any differently, so why should I?