After Cheating Death Twice, Ironman Powers Through Races With Another Person’s Heart

Dizzy, lightheaded and breathless. This was not the first time that he had felt like this, it seemed to happen occasionally. Derek had in fact lived with the sensation for the last six years.

That was before Derek received a new heart. At just 30 years old, Derek was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy, which saved his life, but not before his heart was damaged beyond repair.

Initially diagnosed as Pneumonia, doctors realised that the problem was in fact his heart. After six years of treatment, Derek received a new heart. Derek, who lives in Harleysville, admits he was not the athletic type at all, before he was diagnosed with cancer, weighing in at 200 pounds. As he is only 5′ 10”, this put him into the ‘very definitely overweight’ category.

After the transplant he started rehab, and it was then that he began to walk. Just a few steps at first, the Derek increased slowly. He felt alive, and also very grateful for his new heart.

“I felt amazing, so grateful to be alive,” Derek said. “My body had gotten that far. I wanted to kick the tires a little bit and see if I could go a little further.”

Just eight short months after his transplant, Derek completed his first 5K. Two months later he finished the Philadelphia Half Marathon in a time of 2:37:31.

Derek Fitzgerald
Derek Fitzgerald crosses the finish line of the 2013 Ironman Lake Placid. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF DEREK FITZGERALD

Within just two short years Derek became the first American heart transplant survivor to complete and finish an Ironman Triathlon. He finished the 2.4 mile swim, the 112 mile bike ride and the marathon 45 minutes before the 17 hour cut off.

Derek says that there are some things that he has to be aware of, such as taking his pack of immunosuppressant medications with him at all times. The downside of all his medication is that there is a chance that it will cause skin cancer, so Derek is always diligent with sunscreen.

While Derek is keen to run, and break his own records, he is always very aware that there may be times when he has to slow down. As soon as he feels his heart start to thump, and the blood pound in his ears, he knows that he has to stop right away. While it does not happen that often, when it does, he knows he must act right away. This is his body telling him to slow down.

“I have to listen to my body. I have to be smart about it,” he shared. “I take what my body gives me.”

Most of the time, his medical team have been supportive of his training routine, they have seen the benefits of it with him. They have seen his weight drop to 165 pounds. They have also seen the diabetes – which developed after the transplant – disappear.

“My doctors were doing heart biopsies—literally pulling off pieces of my heart,” he continued. “They’d say, ‘If you didn’t see the scar on your chest, you would never know that this wasn’t your original heart.’”

It was something of a surprise when the symptoms returned, shortness of breath, dizziness, and a feeling of lightheadedness. Derek stopped everything at once. He was prepared to go back on the waiting list for another transplant.

“You can do all the right things and still have heart failure,” Derek said.

Again, for no reason, the symptoms went away completely. One and a half months after being cleared again, Derek ran the Chicago marathon in just 5:16:52. Soon after that he completed his fifth half Ironman, and he plans to do the full marathon soon.

“My heart was back,” he said,

Derek also wants to raise awareness of health issues, and he has started the ‘Recycledman Foundation’ to raise funds for new developments in cancer research.

Derek wants to thank the family of the donor who gave him his new heart. He will never, he knows, be able to fully repay them.

Source: Runner’s World