An Interview with Derek Fitzgerald: Ironman Competitor and Heart Transplant Survivor

Derek FitzgeraldAfter over­com­ing Non-Hodgk­in’s lym­phoma, heart fail­ure, and a heart trans­plant, Derek decid­ed to enter the world of endurance sports. Per­haps even more impres­sive is the fact that before he got sick, Derek was­n’t even active and was over­weight. Since his life-sav­ing trans­plant in 2011, Derek has com­plet­ed over 80 endurance events, includ­ing mul­ti­ple Iron­man races.

THE CLYMB: How active was your lifestyle when you were diag­nosed with Non-Hodgk­in’s lymphoma?

Derek Fitzger­ald: I was diag­nosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma when I was 30 years old. After col­lege, the time and ener­gy I had giv­en toward being out­side and active was replaced with sit­ting at a desk and focus­ing on a career. I start­ed putting on weight in my late 20s, so by the time I hit 30, I was a very inac­tive and tipped the scale at an unhealthy 200 pounds.

THE CLYMB: How long after your treat­ment for Non-Hodgk­in’s lym­phoma did you devel­op heart problems?

Derek Fitzger­ald: My can­cer treat­ments end­ed in May of 2004. Every­thing seemed great for a lit­tle while, but three months lat­er I start­ed hav­ing trou­ble breath­ing, cou­pled with fatigue and dizzy spells. Doc­tors ini­tial­ly thought I had pneu­mo­nia, but after sev­er­al late night trips to the emer­gency room, a car­di­ol­o­gist sat by my bed­side and said, “I know you’ve had a tough year, but I’m afraid I’ve got some more bad news.”

I had gained weight dur­ing my can­cer treat­ment and was moti­vat­ed to get back into shape once I was declared in remis­sion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, by the time I start­ed to work out again, my heart was so weak that any attempts at exer­cise would make the walls start to spin and I would end up on the floor.

Derek Fitzgerald

THE CLYMB: When did you have a heart trans­plant and what was the expe­ri­ence like?

Derek Fitzger­ald: The hard part about a heart trans­plant is the wait­ing lead­ing up to the surgery. The way the trans­plant wait­ing list works, avail­able organs go to the most crit­i­cal can­di­dates first. So even though you’re exhaust­ed from fight­ing to stay alive and you know that you’re already sick enough to die at any moment, you have to hope to get even worse before you have a chance to get bet­ter. You have to main­tain hope while prepar­ing your­self to die. I went through sev­en years of heart fail­ure and was on the wait­ing list for the final four months. By the time I received my new heart, I was asleep for 23 hours a day and was with­er­ing away in a hos­pi­tal bed.

I lat­er found out that if my donor’s heart hadn’t become avail­able when it did, I would have died with­in hours.

My donor’s heart arrived on Jan­u­ary 3, 2011. Before the trans­plant, doc­tors told me the phys­i­cal effects are the equiv­a­lent of being hit by a truck—you wake up from surgery and your chest is being held togeth­er with glue, sta­ples and sur­gi­cal wire. You have breath­ing tubes down your throat, drainage tubes com­ing out of your tor­so, and cables insert­ed into your neck that run to the heart to mon­i­tor inter­nal pressures—it’s scary and tough, but there are some great pain med­ica­tions out there. The most pow­er­ful thing I expe­ri­enced com­ing out of my trans­plant was the over­whelm­ing joy that I had been giv­en a chance at life.

THE CLYMB: How soon after the trans­plant did you start to exer­cise? What was your rou­tine like at first?

Derek Fitzger­ald: I was using a walk­er to explore the hos­pi­tal with­in 24 hours of my trans­plant. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the atro­phy that had start­ed before my trans­plant con­tin­ued through the first few months of recov­ery and I dropped down to 128 pounds. I spent most of Jan­u­ary try­ing to regain the mus­cles to lift my head from my pil­low. If nobody was around to help me out of bed, I was stuck. I think it was prob­a­bly a com­bi­na­tion of bore­dom and bed­sores that led me to wig­gle my butt cheeks over the side of the bed, where I’d fall to the floor and begin drag­ging myself across my bed­room until I hit a ver­ti­cal sur­face where I could pull myself to my feet. Essen­tial­ly, that’s how it all start­ed for me: sweat­ing, pant­i­ng, and curs­ing up a storm as I army-crawled across my bed­room floor.

Derek Fitzgerald

THE CLYMB: What made you decide to take on the world of endurance sports? And did you ever think this was going to be some­thing you were going to pur­sue longterm?

Derek Fitzger­ald: Before my trans­plant, I had nev­er even run a 5K. I used to joke that I didn’t have the short-shorts for it and I just didn’t like being around that many peo­ple. Since my trans­plant, my only goal has been to keep myself in the best shape pos­si­ble; to be a good cus­to­di­an to my donor hero’s heart. Every day, I try to push myself a lit­tle bit fur­ther than where I was the day before. I nev­er expect­ed that mind­set would lead me into the world of endurance sports.

THE CLYMB: How soon after your trans­plant did you com­plete your first race/endurance event?

Derek Fitzger­ald: I ran the Travis Man­ion Foundation’s 9–11 Heroes Run 5K eight months after trans­plant. See­ing all the run­ners was intim­i­dat­ing at first, but it was also inspir­ing, espe­cial­ly when I saw the men and women who ran in full com­bat gear and gas masks. Dur­ing the race, I thought back to lay­ing in my hos­pi­tal bed, not being able to breathe, not know­ing if I would live anoth­er day, but there I was, out­side on a gor­geous day, run­ning and feel­ing amaz­ing. When I final­ly crossed the fin­ish line, I expe­ri­enced a com­bi­na­tion of feel­ings: I was thrilled at the sense of accom­plish­ment, and I was filled with hum­ble grat­i­tude for every­thing I had been giv­en that allowed me to expe­ri­ence that moment. My donor and I had kicked the tires and I was already curi­ous to see what else we could do.

THE CLYMB: Since then, you have com­plet­ed an impres­sive num­ber of endurance events and Iron­man races? Any that were par­tic­u­lar­ly gru­el­ing or had spe­cial mean­ing for you?

Derek Fitzger­ald: Every start­ing line I reach has a spe­cial mean­ing for me, but there are sev­er­al that hold a spe­cial place in my heart (no pun intend­ed). In 2013, I fin­ished Iron­man Lake Placid and became the first can­cer-sur­viv­ing heart trans­plant recip­i­ent to com­plete the 140.6 mile chal­lenge. I nev­er thought I’d be alive, let alone com­pet­ing in an Iron­man, so car­ry­ing my donor’s heart across that fin­ish line will stay with me for­ev­er. In 2015, I had the chance to ride my bike across the Unit­ed States while rais­ing mon­ey and aware­ness for can­cer research, heart health, and organ dona­tion and trans­plan­ta­tion. Dip­ping my rear wheel in the Pacif­ic Ocean, rid­ing through desert sun­ris­es and over moun­tain ranges until my front wheel hit the Atlantic has pro­vid­ed count­less life­long memories.

Derek Fitzgerald

THE CLYMB: What kind of train­ing do you do on a reg­u­lar basis? And is the type/intensity of the train­ing affect­ed in any way by the fact you had a transplant?

Derek Fitzger­ald: I train sev­en days a week with a com­bi­na­tion of swim­ming, cycling, run­ning, strength, flex­i­bil­i­ty and core exer­cis­es. My girl­friend and I also enjoy incor­po­rat­ing hik­ing and kayak­ing into the mix when we can.

I don’t think any­one expect­ed these kinds of results, not my doc­tors, and cer­tain­ly not me. One of the many chal­lenges heart trans­plant ath­letes face is the fact that the nerves that were con­nect­ed to our old hearts are sev­ered dur­ing trans­plant. That means that when we begin to exer­cise, there are no mind/body cues to tell our hearts to beat faster. We have to wait for adren­a­line to reach the heart to make it beat faster. Con­verse­ly, when we fin­ish exer­cis­ing, it takes longer for us to slow down the heart because there’s no con­nec­tion from the brain to say the workout’s over.

Nerve regen­er­a­tion is rare, nev­er guar­an­teed, and if it does hap­pen, it usu­al­ly doesn’t begin to occur until at least five years after trans­plant. Need­less to say, when my nerves start­ed to regen­er­ate with­in the first year, my doc­tors were shocked and could only attribute it to the amount of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty I was doing. Con­sis­tent exer­cise has helped my body and my donor’s heart work togeth­er in ways that nobody ever expect­ed and has made my life bet­ter than I could have ever imag­ined. My lim­i­ta­tions are defined only by where I was yes­ter­day, and each new day brings the chance to beat my own per­son­al best.

THE CLYMB: You recent­ly com­plet­ed the Iron­man 70.3 Ocean­side. What was the race like and how many have you com­plet­ed includ­ing this one?

Derek Fitzger­ald: I love des­ti­na­tion races and see­ing new land­scapes in ways that even most locals don’t get to expe­ri­ence. Liv­ing on the East Coast, it’s such a treat to race along the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast­line with the palm trees over­head. Com­plet­ing Ocean­side brought my total to five 140.6 races and five 70.3’s. I’m cur­rent­ly train­ing for my sixth full Iron­man this July in Lake Placid, NY.

THE CLYMB: Any par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge ahead you’d love to complete?

Derek Fitzger­ald: There are sev­er­al chal­lenges I’d love to tack­le: in triathlon, I’ve heard so many amaz­ing things about Chal­lenge Roth that it’s real­ly high on my list, and when it comes to run­ning, the ulti­mate goal has to be the Boston Marathon. I’m not where I want to be for that to hap­pen yet, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my life so far, it’s that any­thing is possible.