Iron woman

Candace Gantt, a triathlete, returns to the spot on Goshen Road, Newtown Square, where she was hit by a truck while cycling in 2005.
Candace Gantt, a triathlete, returns to the spot on Goshen Road, Newtown Square, where she was hit by a truck while cycling in 2005. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Seven years ago, Candace Gantt was knocked from her bike by a truck, suffering a severe traumatic brain injury. Death seemed certain. Yet Saturday, at 55, she will compete in her first-ever Ironman Triathlon.

Posted: October 18, 2012

Candace Gantt bends over her Trek handlebars, her back racer-flat. She's concentrating on the stretch of pavement ahead as she negotiates the gentle hills and valleys of the narrow, two-lane road in Willistown Township.

Biking is one of her fondest joys. Two weeks earlier, this tall and tanned 48-year-old, with a resting heart rate of 48, had completed her first Half Ironman at Lake Placid, N.Y.

On this clear day, July 21, 2005, while daughters Carter, 11, and Morgan, 4, are at camp, Gantt and her training buddy Mary Wood are four miles into a new 15-mile route.

Biking 100 yards behind, Wood loses sight as Gantt crests the brow of a hill on Goshen Road. Catching up a few seconds later, she is stunned.

Her friend is splayed on the pavement.

Hit by a truck and thrown from her bike, Gantt banged into a telephone pole and ricocheted into a split-rail fence. She suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, known as TBI - not unlike what happened to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was shot in the head.

Each year, 1.7 million people go to the ER for a TBI, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. Of those, 52,000 die and 275,000 are hospitalized, many facing lifelong deficits.

By most odds, Gantt should have died. At best, one of her doctors predicted, she was going to need help with daily tasks, such as showering or balancing the checkbook. But the odds didn't account for Gantt, a woman of determination and deep faith. Nor for a series of events that together bolstered her chance of survival and then recovery.

On Saturday, seven years and three months after her accident, Gantt, 55, will compete in the Beach2Battleship Ironman in Wilmington, N.C. - her first full Ironman, and the most grueling competition (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) she has ever done.

Her doctors call her recovery remarkable, even miraculous.

"Why her brain repaired itself to the extent that other people's don't, I don't know," says Sean Grady, chair of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He suspects that quick treatment made a difference and perhaps her level of fitness, "but I can't prove it," he says.

Gantt's husband, Russ, has no doubt it was "a blessing from God."

Their daughter Morgan is sure it was the pull of her and her sister. "She had such a strong will because she wanted to see us," she says.

Whatever the reason, it means this Ironman is more than a test of her athleticism and endurance.

It is perhaps a last chance to test her limits - she's not getting any younger, she notes. It also enables her to raise money through sponsors for research at Penn's Center for Brain Injury and Repair, a cause she and her husband support through a namesake fund they established.

But most important, this Ironman gives proof that she really has come full circle.

As a child, Gantt never considered herself athletic.

But she loved to run on the rare occasions she caught the football in neighborhood pickup games in Akron, Ohio. She kept up jogging at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and later as director of reservations for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels. When she married and became a full-time mother, she joined a running club, and within 18 months completed her first marathon and then her first triathlon.

"In a career, I would start and finish something," she says. "As a mom, that's hard to do." The competitions, ever more challenging, "gave me a purpose. It satisfied a need to have goals and accomplish them." Crossing a finish line, the crowd roaring, is "enlivening."

In many ways, that same drive - a type A personality characteristic of triathletes - may have saved her life.

On that day, a paving truck hauling a mixer pulled wide into the opposite lane to pass her, then encountered an oncoming car and quickly cut back, in front of Gantt. "The trailer fishtailed and hit me," she says. "I was like a ping-pong ball." The truck never stopped.

These days, Gantt avoids riding the stretch, as do her husband and Wood. Recently, she took a visitor to the sylvan scene, on the edge of On Point Farm.

"It's a beautiful road," she says. "It so nice to ride. It's hard to imagine something so tragic happened here."

As she points out the telephone pole, a lone biker cruises down the hill. "Oh, God, there's a biker here," she says, as if he, too, should avoid the tainted stretch.

At the time of the accident, about 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday, says Gantt, the doctor on call was only one mile away, allowing him to arrive before the ambulance. Luckily, he was a neurologist. Precious seconds were saved because he immediately recognized the signs of traumatic brain injury. Under sedation, Gantt was medevaced to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's Trauma Center.

Brain trauma victims are assessed on the Glasgow Coma Scale that ranges from 3 to 15. The higher the number, the milder the injury. Gantt was a 3T, the severe category.

Meanwhile, Wood had gotten a message to Russ, an executive at AstraZeneca, that his wife was injured.

He walked into the ER and was met by a priest. "I thought the worst," he says. When a young surgeon wanted to drill into his wife's skull to insert an intracranial pressure monitor, he demanded "to talk to someone with a few gray hairs," says Russ, 60 now. Grady fit the bill.

At home in Easttown Township, he tried to reassure the girls by not telling them details.

Morgan was about to start prekindergarten. She remembers watching more TV than the babysitter usually allowed and wondering where her mom was.

But Carter, seven years older, has vivid recollections. The sitter picked her up from camp as usual, but as the day wound down, Carter noticed her mother's absence and the hushed tones when a neighbor came by and talked with the sitter.

"My fears were confirmed when my dad sat us over in our living room," says Carter, 17 now. "We never use that room."

"Ever," adds Morgan, 11.

Still, neither girl realized how seriously injured their mother was. Carter's biggest concern at the time was the effect the hospitalization would have on the family's summer vacation to Spain.

That same evening, HUP called. Gantt needed a craniectomy - the removal of half her skull, about the size of her open hand - to allow the brain to swell without impairing the brain stem.

The next morning, a parade of doctors checked her reflexes, looked at her pupils, tickled the bottom of her feet. Gantt, in a coma, was unresponsive. The hope was that her brain would reboot in a couple of weeks.

Her husband describes the daily barrage of procedures as an "assault," even though he knew they were necessary. Her room in the ICU was so crowded with equipment that it was hard for visitors to stand inside.

A trauma nurse took to whispering in her ear, "Mommy, come help us" to jolt Gantt awake.

"She knew how to reach inside me, and she found the trigger to release me from my coma," Gantt says. "She found the depth of my soul."

Early on, doctors made clear to Russ that his wife probably wouldn't understand speech or be able to talk. "I just cried my eyes out," he says. "I was just devastated by that. That's the essence of people."

Two weeks later, a friend - one of many who continuously rotated by her bedside - saw Gantt's foot twitch. She ran to the nurse's station with the news. Soon, Gantt was moved to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital.

"I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't stand up. I couldn't talk," she says. She could track a light with her eyes. "That was huge. Somebody's home. Don't know who."

At home, Morgan cried every day for her mother. And Carter became her sister's caretaker. Family and friends rallied with meals and comfort; at one point, the girls went with relatives to Disney World - a distraction for them and welcome respite for Russ so he could focus on advocating for his wife's needs.

Gantt regained her cognitive functions rapidly. One of her first memories, she says, was worry over who was taking care of Morgan and Carter. "I gotta go home. That was my thesis," she says. Her second thought: "Where's my bike?"

One-word responses turned into simple sentences. Always deeply religious, she worked her brain by memorizing Bible verses. One of the first was Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

She also started to walk - and one day, she insisted on a jog. "Because that's her," says Carter, as if she were the mother talking about her obstinate teen. A physical therapist obliged, and together, they jogged the rehab's campus.

The children, who hadn't seen their mother in six weeks, visited at rehab.

It was a disaster.

"I was afraid of her," says Morgan. Gantt had a helmet on her head, her voice was gravelly from the tracheostomy, and she looked wan as she sat in a wheelchair.

Carter was scared for a different reason. "I thought that for the rest of her life it was going to be us taking care of her," she says. "You learn that life isn't fair. At 11, it's a hard lesson. My mom was such a good mother and such a good wife. Why would this happen to her?"

Gantt was heartbroken at her girls' remoteness. Russ understood but was still disheartened. Even worse was her anger at him.

"She was like a caged animal," he says, describing a net that enclosed her bed to keep her secure as she relearned to walk. "She was crawling back and forth, couldn't lie down, scratching her head, trying to get up. She kept pleading with me to take her home, asking why am I doing this to her."

Less than three months after the accident, Gantt came home. Her husband fed her through a stomach tube. She often had wild mood swings.

"She'd be so nice, and she'd get so angry, and then, 'Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry,' " says Carter.

Over the next several months, though, her old self returned. A second surgery replaced the piece of skull taken out during the craniectomy and preserved in a freezer. It would be secured with titanium plates and 40 bolts, earning her the nickname "Titanium Woman." She told Grady: "I want to be close to God. I just don't want to meet him."

She returned to sprints, running races, and upping the ante with half marathons and Olympic distances. After much negotiation with Russ, she also added bike rides. "It was joy," she says. "Finally, I was back doing something I love."

Then, two years after the accident, when life seemed normal again, she was back in the hospital for surgery - her body was resorbing the skull plate. Once again, surgeons had to reopen her scalp and this time, put in a plastic plate.

She has scars, faintly visible at her throat from the trach, down her left arm, along the left side of her forehead. "You can feel my bolts," she says, pressing her fingers to her temple. She changed the part in her hair to hide all the sutures.

Gantt still struggles for the right word at times. And when she's tired, she forgets things or gets lost even in familiar surroundings.

One of her worst cognitive lapses was when she went to the airport to pick up her mother-in-law. While she waited with her bags, Gantt went to get her car and then couldn't find her way back to the terminal.

"I was so upset," she says. "Everything was just falling apart. . . . I was sobbing."

It was hard on Russ, too. He became even more protective of her and still is. He asks her to call him before and after each of her training bike rides.

Morgan allows that she has "a case of mommy-itis," reluctant to stray too far. She says she wishes her mom would take up yoga instead.

For Carter, independence came early. "My dad still tells me to this day when Mom and I go somewhere, 'OK, Carter, watch out for your mom,' " she says, "when I feel like it should be, 'Candace, watch out for your daughter.' "

As Gantt trains for the Beach2Battleship, her coach, Bill Hauser, says she's in the best condition of her life. She never uses the accident as a reason to not continue, he says.

"My mother would always tell me how stubborn I was," Gantt says. "She used to say I was like the Berlin Wall. It was an absolute negative.

"Now, that suits me," she says. "Maybe I am stubborn."


Hear Candace Gantt's medical team and family talk about her recovery at www.philly.com/candace.


Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com. Contributions can be made to Penn's Center for Brain Injury and Repair by going to www.pennmedicine.org/giving, clicking "Make a Gift Online," and choosing Hospitals, Health System, and the Russell & Candace Gantt Fund. 

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