By Jim Melwert
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It’s been a quite a year for a Harleysville man, as he became the first cancer survivor and heart-transplant recipient to complete 140.6 miles of an Ironman triathlon. And he did it twice.
Not long after he turned 30, Derek Fitzgerald was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The treatment saved his life, but it nearly destroyed his heart.
“You just get weaker and weaker and weaker, and every night I would go to bed and I would wonder, ‘am I going to wake up tomorrow?’ And that’s pretty much the way it was for seven years.”
After he collapsed in his doctor’s office in late December, 2010, Derek was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a new heart on January 3, 2011. He woke up from surgery, and heard a strange noise, a noise he hadn’t heard for several years: the beating of his own heart:
“It was an overwhelming experience, and I knew I how incredibly, incredibly fortunate I was.”
But he also realized what the family of his donor was going through:
“Not knowing who my donor was, or who my donor family is, I knew that I would do my best to honor this person.”
Listen to Jim’s full interview with Derek…
He put everything into his rehabilitation. Crawling became walking, walking became running, first a 5k, then a half-marathon, then a full 26.2 marathon in 2012.
Then, this past July, Derek set his sights on Ironman Lake Placid: a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2 mile marathon:
“And my goal was to carry my donor’s heart the full 140.6 miles, to be the first ever cancer survivor / heart transplant recipient to finish that distance,” he says.
Fitzgerald finished in 16-hours, 45-minutes. His wife, LeeAnn, was waiting at the finish line and put the medal around his neck.
He bettered that time by over an hour completing Ironman Arizona in November of this year, with other heart recipients who call themselves the “Tin Men.”
Fitzgerald and his wife are expecting their first child any day now, and he says his wish is for everyone to understand how precious life is without having to go through what he went through.
“If I could encapsulate the way I feel now, and wrap it up with a nice ribbon, and give it to people and have people understand how precious life is, without them having to go through what I went through, I would do that. I wish I could.”