Heart transplant recipients honored with Chris Klug Foundation’s annual Bounce Back, Give Back Award
Derek Fitzgerald gave his chest a tap when asked about completing six Ironman triathlons and countless other endurance races. He hadn’t always been an athlete, but the heart pumping life into his being was a gift so special that 140.6 miles of suffering became anything but.
“I talk to my donor all the time, saying, ‘Are we up for this? Let’s do this,’” Fitzgerald said Thursday from the Aspen Square hotel. “The very fact that I’m not so far out from being in a hospital bed and wondering if I was going to wake up the next morning and being awake for only an hour a day that every time I go out there it’s a celebration. … Every heartbeat is a gift given to me by some anonymous hero.”
Fitzgerald, whose life was saved nine years ago after a heart transplant, is one of the sixth annual Bounce Back, Give Back Award winners, an honor handed out by the Chris Klug Foundation. Each year the award recipients are brought to Aspen to take part in a festive weekend, which includes Saturday’s 14th annual Summit for Life uphill race on Aspen Mountain.
Hailing from just outside Philadelphia, the now-46-year-old Fitzgerald plans to compete in Saturday’s race, just as he did about three years ago in his first visit to Aspen. He’ll be the featured guest this weekend along with New York’s Lauren Shields, another heart transplant recipient who is trying to do the most she can with her second chance at life.
When she was 7, Shields contracted a virus that attacked her heart. A healthy child only days before, she would spend nine months in intensive care as her organs began to shut down. The only thing that could save her was a heart transplant and she was put on a waiting list.
“My body had checked out and it was done. I was put into a medically induced coma and at that point we were just hoping that we would get the call,” Shields said. “When I was waiting, the thing that gave me the most hope was seeing people after transplant and that they looked totally normally and you would never even know they had a transplant.”
While on life support in March 2009, not even two months after being put on the waiting list, Shields was gifted her new heart. This was just the beginning, however, as soon after she had a stroke and had to relearn how to do basic body functions such as walking, sitting and swallowing.
Now 19 and a college sophomore, a healthy Shields spends her time spreading the word of organ donation while working on her biology degree. She hopes to one day work in a hospital and give back to those who went through a similar ordeal.
“In some ways that event in my life, although it was so hard and it may seem so scary and terrible, it really changed my life and my outlook on life and really made me the person I am today,” Shields said. “You don’t take things for granted anymore and you really live each day to the fullest because you never know what can happen.”
Fitzgerald’s heart transplant was the result of cancer. When he was 30, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The chemotherapy cured him of the cancer, but did extensive damage to his heart. He spent the next seven years dealing with ongoing heart failure and finally got his life-saving transplant Jan. 3, 2011.
Only eight months after the transplant, he ran his first 5K. Two months after that, he ran his first half marathon. Barely a year later, he competed in his first Olympic-distance triathlon and has not slowed down since.
An ambassador for numerous organizations, including the Ironman Foundation, Donate Life America and the Gift of Life Donor Program, Fitzgerald also started the Recycledman Foundation, which seeks to get those who have survived medical hardship back into an active, healthy lifestyle.
“To be alive is an amazing thing and to be able to live this amazing life is another thing entirely,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of people look at a life after a significant health challenge as a life of limitations and compromise. And it’s about getting up and moving. The more you take care of your body here, the more you are going to take care of your mind, the more you are going to stay compliant with your medications and the better your quality of life will be.”
Saturday’s Summit for Life race, a roughly 3,200-foot hike or skin up Aspen Mountain, is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. To see about racing or donating, or taking part in the post-race dinner and awards presentation at the top of Aspen Mountain, go to summitforlife.org.
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Every summer there comes a particular hike on a particular day when you know you’re seeing the best wildflower display of the year. It is a magical, and bittersweet, day.