Battling back - area man is going the distance

Derek Fitzgerald competes in the Ironman Arizona. He and four fellow heart transplant recipients entered as Team Tin Men.
Derek Fitzgerald competes in the Ironman Arizona. He and four fellow heart transplant recipients entered as Team Tin Men.
Posted: December 03, 2013

Derek Fitzgerald played baritone horn in the marching band at North Penn High School, and his father ran the music program at Bensalem High.

Visiting his father one day, Derek "saw the girls in color guard in spandex." LeeAnn in particular looked very cute.

Derek visited a lot more often, soon dating LeeAnn. They attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, got married.

But then, Derek, at age 30, got cancer in 2003.

He survived, but chemotherapy ruined his heart. In 2011, too weak to lift his head off a pillow, he got a heart transplant.

Two weeks ago, Derek Fitzgerald, now 40, of Harleysville, attempted his second Ironman Triathlon. He did not go alone to the Arizona desert. He entered with four other heart transplant recipients, who call themselves Team Tin Men.

One was Dan Smith, 48, of Northeast Philadelphia.

"Like Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, we were waiting for the gift of a new heart," Smith said. "And once we got that, it enabled us to live a whole and full life."

The five wanted to honor their donors, show the power of organ donation, shatter any sense of limitation. So they entered an Ironman - a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on a bike, then a 26.2-mile run.

"My wife," Smith said, "thinks we should be referred to as the Scarecrow, because we're all insane and have no brain if we want to do races like this."

Heart failure

After college, Derek Fitzgerald started a business creating technology solutions for health-care companies. He was traveling the world meeting with oncologists when he got cancer.

Chemotherapy cured him, but one of the drugs, Adriamycin, was known to cause heart damage in a small percentage of cases. Three months later, he was in heart failure.

His company had just expanded into iPad apps for cardiovascular drugs. He told his colleagues: "No more expansion. My health can't take it."

Fitzgerald lived with heart failure for seven years. At first he felt like a 10-pound weight hung from each lung, and the weight grew heavier until he couldn't get out of bed, even lift a hand.

 He couldn't sleep lying down or his lungs would fill with fluid.  

In January 2011, he got a new heart.

He woke up in a hospital bed hearing "this annoying thud." He realized, "I'd forgotten what it felt like to have a heart beat."

"It was like putting fresh batteries in an old, dead remote," he added. "Suddenly, everything worked. I knew that day I owed a debt that I can never repay to someone that I'll never know. I was going to make the most with whatever time I had left."

He has never considered himself athletic. But he started crawling, literally, then walking, then running a few seconds, then a few minutes.

By spring, their newly finished basement had a treadmill, weight machine, and recumbent bike.

LeeAnn asked, "You're not going to become one of those guys, are you? One of those guys who gets a second chance and starts running marathons?"

"No way," he said. "I don't have the short shorts."

He did become one of those guys.

"Every time I exercised, it hurt," he said. "But it was so satisfying and gratifying."

Caring for her husband

LeeAnn cared for her husband through his cancer, then his heart failure.

"When you love someone that much, you find a strength that you didn't know you had," she said.

"The lowest wasn't really a point. It was that constant pit in my stomach that always reminded me that I was likely going to outlive Derek, and we couldn't have children, and I would die alone.

"I was just looking at this abyss of loneliness. That was very difficult. Having those conversations: 'Do you want to be cremated or be buried? And what do you want to be buried in?' "

Then, the new heart.

"At this point, I think he's going to outlive me," LeeAnn said. "We both kind of became hermits while he was sick. We didn't have energy. Never went out and did anything. As he aged and essentially became an old man, I aged with him.

"But then he was young again, and I was still an old lady. He made me feel like a cougar."

Her husband inspired her, as he has so many others, to begin walking, running, and biking. This year, they rode 50 miles around Lake Tahoe.

Derek Fitzgerald learned to swim and bought a bike. He joined Team in Training, sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He had suffered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

He worked his way up to an Ironman because he wanted to celebrate the "second or third or fourth chance" in life that he'd been given, and he "wanted to have an experience that is the furthest thing" from where he'd been.

When the pain of biking or running was intense, he thought of when he couldn't lift his head, or when he crawled across his bedroom floor.

  LeeAnn was with him at his first Ironman this summer at Lake Placid, N.Y. She put the medal around his neck - a moment neither will forget.

"  If you're willing to push your boundaries," he said, "then a whole new world is out there that you never dreamed you can participate in."

Dan Smith, another Tin Man, had open heart surgery as a boy, in 1967, when it was still radical. He was never allowed to do sports. His repaired heart lasted until 2005, when he had a transplant.

As he recovered in his hospital bed, he watched reruns of the Hawaiian Ironman, the original and most renowned Ironman event. He thought that if veterans with one leg and cancer survivors and people with all sorts of amazing stories can do an Ironman, he could at least walk a 5K, maybe jog, and even work up to a smaller triathlon.

He did one and finished second to last. But he finished. He then ran five half-marathons. Smith had his transplant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as did Derek Fitzgerald, who called Smith with questions after receiving his new heart.

Smith put Fitzgerald in touch with another heart transplant recipient and cancer survivor, Kyle Garlett, 42, of California, who had entered two Ironmans but had yet to finish one.

Garlett and Fitzgerald formed Team Tin Men and Tin Men Endurance Racing, and invited Smith and two others to join. All five trained for the Ironman Nov. 17 in Tempe, Ariz.

Garlett had hurt his back in a bicycle accident weeks earlier, and decided at the starting line to withdraw.

Smith jumped into a lake to start the swim, the first leg, and another man jumped on top of him just as he was coming up for a breath, knocking him back under. Smith was dizzy, disoriented, and cold, even with a wet suit. The water was 62 degrees.

When the dizziness didn't pass, he got out and cheered on teammates.

He will try again.

"I grew up with three sisters," Smith said, "and after Ironman Arizona, I feel like I have four brothers."

Justin Feria, 30, of California, was stopped at the 20-mile mark of the run. The race starts at 7 a.m. and must end by midnight. He was out of time.

Trevor Kecskes, 24, of Colorado Springs, Colo., 9 when he had his transplant, finished in 16 hours, 45 minutes - at 11:45 p.m.

Derek Fitzgerald finished in 15 hours, 29 minutes. He is the first cancer survivor and heart transplant recipient to finish one Ironman, much less two.

 His swim time was 1:48; bike, 6:50; and marathon 6:31.  

He said that his doctors support him, and that he knows his limits.

"  G  oing through 10 years of cancer, heart failure, and a transplant recalibrated my pain threshold and what I'm able to endure," he said. "Ironman at its worst can be painful and tough, but it's a conscious choice - it's a healthy pain. A recreational activity will never compare with a fight for your life."

Next up, parenthood

In six weeks, Fitzgerald will begin perhaps life's greatest endurance event - parenthood.

When Derek received the new heart, he and LeeAnn agreed to stop trying to have a baby. "It was selfish to ask for anything more," she said. "We decided to give up and be happy with what he was given."

And she got pregnant.

The baby is due Jan. 14.


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639 @michaelvitez

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