Heart of Iron: My Journey from Transplant Patient to Ironman Triathlete

Heart of Iron: My Journey from Transplant Patient to Ironman Triathlete

by Kyle Garlett

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Throughout his life, Kyle Garlett hated nothing more than losing, and he knew early on that four diagnoses of cancer could not match his spirit of competition. His appetite for victory and his love of life pushed him over his health hurdles—including a bone marrow transplant, hip replacement, and heart transplant—and into the

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Throughout his life, Kyle Garlett hated nothing more than losing, and he knew early on that four diagnoses of cancer could not match his spirit of competition. His appetite for victory and his love of life pushed him over his health hurdles—including a bone marrow transplant, hip replacement, and heart transplant—and into the greatest challenge of his life: the Ironman World Championship. Kyle tells his amazing life story with clear-headed optimism and a winning sense of humor, beginning with his first diagnosis of lymphoma as a teenager and continuing through years of chemotherapy that destroyed his joints and weakened his heart. Not just about his health crisis but also about forging a remarkable life around cancer and his career as a sportwriter, the amazing friends and family who supported him, and finding love. After five and half years on the organ transplant waiting list then being gifted with a new heart, Kyle embarks on a challenge of his own making: to compete in the Ironman Triathlon, in which he competed not once but twice. His miraculous recovery and athleticism are recounted, along with the story of how he became an Olympic torch bearer, a devoted Lymphoma & Leukemia Society spokesperson, a motivational speaker, and an author. Heart of Iron is an invaluable companion for those affected by cancer and a breathtaking memoir about one man’s unstoppable spirit and success against all odds.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Garlett (The Worst Call Ever) takes a break from sports writing to tell his own valiant story of survival. After four bouts with cancer, years of radiation and chemotherapy, and a treacherous five-year wait for a heart donor, Garlett shocked the world by competing in two breathtaking Iron Man Triathlon World Championships. This tale of heartbreak opens a window on the life of an 18-year-old boy who suffered numerous medical traumas until he was 35. Garlett's story is insightful and inspiring, although at times the details become too much. For those who seek an inspirational story, the technical words and meticulous re-enactments add potentially unnecessary hurdles. However, a hero in every sense of the word, Garlett's unwavering courage, raw honesty and brilliant love for life absolutely radiate from the page. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"Kyle Garlett's journey of overcoming incredible physical, emotional, and psychological battles is a testament to his internal willpower and tenacity. His inspirational story is an absolute must read!"—Dave Scott, six-time Ironman world champion

“Kyle Garlett is truly the face of courage in the mind-blowing story of survival against all odds. Delivered with humor reminiscent of author Bill Bryson, Kyle takes us on a journey that makes you gasp out loud at what he had to endure physically and mentally year after year, yet also laugh out loud at his approach to it all. This book is hard to put down.” —Phil Keoghan, founder of No Opportunity Wasted and Emmy Award-winning host of The Amazing Race

“If you’ve heard Kyle speak, you know that he tells the story of his incredibly difficult journey through life with a humorist’s touch. His book, Heart of Iron, is no different. It is heartbreaking at times, even tragic. But it is also funny, very inspiring, and ultimately triumphant.  You will feel differently about the joys of life and the strength of the human spirit after reading this story.” —Chris Klug, five-time World Cup snowboarding champion, three-time Olympian, and liver transplant recipient

“Kyle’s commitment throughout to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and our Team In Training program, both ways to celebrate his own victory over cancer while raising funds and awareness to help others beat cancer, is truly inspiring.” —John Walter, president and CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

"A compassionate celebration of the human spirit that doesn't gloss over tough realities."—Kirkus Reviews

"A truly inspiring story"—Booklist

Kirkus Reviews

Freelance sportswriter and motivational speaker Garlett (What Were They Thinking?: The Brainless Blunders that Changed Sports History, 2009, etc.) writes with humor and brutal honesty about his 17-year battle to defeat cancer.

In 1989, Garlett was expecting his senior year in high school to be a ball; when he noticed two lumps in his neck, he wasn't unduly alarmed. A biopsy revealed Hodgkin's lymphoma, but the doctor reassured him that it could be cured. He finished the school year and went on to college, functioning despite the debilitating effects of radiation treatment, but his first year in college was a disaster. He spent his time partying and barely squeaked by academically. Then the Hodgkin's returned and this time he faced six cycles of disabling chemotherapy. After another remission, he buckled down in college and established a career as a sportswriter after graduation. His remission lasted only until 1995; this time, his odds of surviving were reduced to 40 percent. His treatment was so severe that he was on the point of death several times and required a bone-marrow transplant. After finally defeating the Hodgkin's, two years later he faced leukemia and three more years of treatment. Describing his experiences with wry humor, he chronicles how he managed to keep working, met and married his wife and worked to rebuild his strength. Not content to define himself with just being a survivor, he welcomed new challenges. After recovering from a heart transplant (necessitated by the effects of chemotherapy), he competed in the grueling Ironman Triathlon.

A compassionate celebration of the human spirit that doesn't gloss over tough realities.

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Heart of iron

My Journey from Transplant Patient to Ironman Triathlete

By Kyle Garlett

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 Kyle Garlett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-008-8



Twenty years before I found myself swimming in the Pacific Ocean with the best triathletes on Planet Earth, I was your typical teenager growing up in Wichita, Kansas. For those of you who didn't maturate in a mild-mannered Midwestern "almost-city" like Wichita, "typical" for a teenager in his final year of high school meant working on his college résumé on weekdays and driving up and down Douglas Boulevard or parking at the neighborhood fast-food restaurant on the weekends.

Once upon a time, when there were regular cattle drives up the Great Plains, Wichita was an important way station for cowboys, their cows, and the businesses of ill repute that served them. And because of whom that crowd drew to town — including a young Billy the Kid, among others — it was also the former home of legendary lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. The section of town known as Delano, where the majority of the gambling, drinking, philandering, and gun fighting took place, made the Atlantic City of the 1920s, as seen in Boardwalk Empire, seem like a sleepy and virtuous Victorian village.

By 1977, when my college professor parents, Fred and Marti Garlett, were hired to teach at Friends University in Wichita, public carousing and uncontrolled gunplay had become a thing of the past. The cows of the nineteenth century had been replaced by twentieth-century airplane manufacturing. And the neighborhood of Delano featured more than fifteen churches and a minor-league baseball stadium. Any mixed-use commercial developments that combined saloons with brothels were noticeably absent.

From kindergarten through twelfth grade, I called the west side of Wichita home. It was suburban, with large neighborhoods, old trees, and quiet residential streets. The combination of the time, the 1970s and '80s, and place made the neighbors friendly and the safety and security of children playing in yards and streets a given. Bikes were ridden, but never with a helmet. Walks home from friends' houses after dark were made without second thoughts. And there was a sense of understanding that Saturday was for soccer, or whatever sport was in season, and Sunday was for church and family gatherings. It wasn't quite Leave It to Beaver — in our world, June Cleaver had a job and rarely did housework while wearing pearls — but it wasn't The Sopranos either.

Initially my father, born and raised in Kansas City, was the band director at the college where my parents taught. He'd been a musician all his life and was a killer on the trumpet, leading off Wichita's annual Fourth of July fireworks display with the playing of "Taps." He'd led a jazz band, a marching band, and a concert band, and many nights of my youth had been spent watching him conduct. I'm a lot like my father, both in looks and in even temperament, and no doubt some of that similarity consciously comes from idolization and my feeling as a child that he was the coolest guy I knew. Imagine, a job where you get to perform onstage wearing a blue tuxedo with ruffles. (Remember, this was the late 1970s and early '80s. Ruffles were hot.)

By the time my Wichita school days were winding down, my dad had left behind his baton and trumpet and moved from the music department to continuing and adult education. He was working on his doctorate at Columbia University — light-years away from Wichita and Friends University — and the part-time program at Columbia took him to New York a few days each month.

My mother was a Chicagoan who came to Kansas for college, where she met and married my dad. She'd taught kindergarten through third grade before our move to Wichita, but she became a teacher of teachers — a professor of elementary education — at Friends. There she extended her influence on children's education from just one classroom to literally hundreds.

Where my dad and I can be seen as quiet and closed on occasion, my mother is not. She enjoys talking about almost anything, including emotions and feelings (imagine that). I have heard the phrase "A penny for your thoughts" more times than I care to remember. For my thoughts, a penny has always felt like a woefully cheap offer. In the case of my mom, you'd be overpaying. Just wait five seconds, and she's sure to voice those thoughts without the need of a one-cent bribe.

The driving personality of the family, my mom had an unapologetic openness that also made her the perfect selection for her second but most noteworthy job in Wichita: that of Romper Room teacher. She landed the most visible television role for children in the entire state when I was still in kindergarten, which instantly made me the most well-known kid in school.

Miss Marti, as she was known in the Romper Room world, was a genuine celebrity. During dinners out, she was often approached for autographs. One year, with a much older and larger me by her side as Do Bee, the giant bee that came on the show to pass along lessons and tips to the children, she blew the whistle to start the opening parade at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We also made a yearly tour through the ALCO retail stores that dotted the plains of western Kansas for fan autographs and pictures with Do Bee (me).

For nearly a decade, my mom juggled the two jobs — that of college professor and children's television host — and two personalities. But by the time my dad was making his frequent trips to New York and I was beginning my final year of high school, she'd moved on from both and was working as an administrator for the Wichita public school district.

As I began my senior year in high school, I was looking to the years beyond it by continuing to add to my résumé. I'd been in debate for two years, I'd been in choir since the beginning of high school (my dad's instrumental instincts weren't passed on to me), and just a couple months earlier, I'd won the job of senior class president. I played team sports earlier in my high school days, which would have made me typical on many a college application. But due to a lethal mix of speed and agility that pushed me into playing the positions of baseball catcher, football nose guard, and soccer goalie, my confining levels of athleticism landed me on the sidelines by the time I was a senior. Sadly, the desire to be Major League Baseball's next George Brett is in itself not enough to actually make it happen.

By early August 1989, I had long given up my dream of playing professional sports; I'd since switched my focus to talking about them. The University of Missouri was my targeted college of choice, and I planned to major in broadcast journalism. My long-term goal was to be a sports anchor in a major television market or the play-by-play voice of a professional team by the time I turned thirty. I was seventeen years old, and thirty was about as long-term as my brain could comprehend. Anything older, and I would become my parents.

Columbia, Missouri, was still a year away. Until that future came, there was a fall of Friday night football and postgame parties to attend. (Just because I wasn't on the team didn't mean I couldn't hang out with them.) There were girls to chase, and hopefully date. There was a cake-walk of a class schedule that was the envy of everyone exhibiting the early symptoms of senioritis. With early admission to Mizzou locked in and most of the academic heavy lifting done the previous two semesters, I flanked my AP English and calculus classes with two hours of music, an hour of debate, and a pair of honor study halls — which made for a mockery of the word "honor."

A couple of weeks before classes started, I went shoe shopping with my mother. The pre-school-year new-shoes shopping trip is also very typical of Midwestern life, as I'm sure it is elsewhere. The habitually humdrum nature of the end-of-summer ceremony also makes it infinitely forgettable. I'd been on nearly a dozen other such excursions with my parents over the years. Or least I assume I have. I had shoes as a kid, shoes I didn't pay for. And the parental units seem to be the most likely suspects. But I don't remember any of those outings.

Except this time.

The reduced rumble of the passing mall traffic was unremarkable in its banality. This was 1989, but since I didn't purchase a pair of the newly released Reebok Pumps — I left those to Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb — there was nothing memorable about the shoes that I left the store with that afternoon. The sneaker peddler, clad in a referee's uniform, looked just as ridiculous and unfit to pass official judgment on any level of sporting event as all the rest before him.

The nuts and bolts of our afternoon at the mall were as equally commonplace as all the rest. And I'm sure my attitude — that of a seventeen-year-old who was slightly disagreeable at the notion of spending a Saturday afternoon with Mom at the mall, but very agreeable to the use of her credit card — was consistently teenage. What did stand out, however, was the lump that I felt along the right side of my neck, just under the jaw.

It was fairly large, about half the size of a golf ball. It was also hard like a golf ball. But it was absent any pain or discomfort when I pushed and probed it with my fingers, which I found myself unable to stop doing. It was probably this lack of associated pain that kept it from detection until that moment.

I sized it up with fingers, trying to use my somewhat limited knowledge of the human body to figure out what it was. When that didn't jog loose any ingrained anatomical instruction, I turned to my mother. Despite two graduate degrees and an adult lifetime of teaching college students, she was just as puzzled. We sat there on the wood-slatted bench, the two of us, waiting for my senior year's tennis shoes to be brought from the back room, but now with a very obvious cloud of nervous energy hanging over our heads.

In dealing with my parents, my modus operandi was usually silence and secrecy. I don't have any children of my own. But I imagine that the closed-mouth, keep-your-feelings-to-yourself policy that I largely lived by is pretty typical for a teenager, especially a teenage boy. Although as I get older, and allegedly wiser, I also recognize that a part of that policy was born of my own personality.

This unofficial adaptation of this approach frustrated my mom. She prefers open books, while I really like how they look on the shelf with neatly organized spines all reading in the same direction. I have since slowly opened the doors of expressing myself and sharing those secrets and thoughts (writing a tell-all book should qualify), but her frustration still exists. I'll never get to where she is, and she'll never fully accept that I can't be coaxed along further.

The bottom line is, I hate big deals. They're hassles. So if something I'm thinking or feeling might lead to a big deal (that is, the worried declarations of a mother that her son needs to see a doctor, and quickly), I usually stay silent. But that time in 1989, I didn't. I did the exact opposite of stay silent.

Later that day and into the next, as I analyzed my surprisingly open and communicative response, the truth landed hard. I was open because I was honestly scared.

It was probably nothing, I told myself. My knowledge of the human body was limited, but it wasn't a vacuum of ignorance either. Common sense gleaned from the minimal knowledge that had been imparted to me by the Kansas public school system (no offense, I like Kansas, but let's be honest — it's not exactly thought of as the bellwether of scientific enlightenment) also told me in a fairly authoritative voice that it was probably nothing. There are a hundred reasons why a neck gland would swell.

But within that hundred or so nothings, there were also a few somethings. And that's what I couldn't shake.

Earlier in the summer of 1989, I traveled abroad pretty extensively. The year before, my family hosted an exchange student from Cancún, Mexico, so it only seemed polite to have his seventeen-year-old American brother spend the month of June with him on the Mexican Riviera. It was a good time had by all, especially me, but according to my doctor, it was also a possible source of an infection.

Lump suspect number one.

After June had passed and I'd returned home to the States very uncharacteristically tan, I quickly repacked for a trip to Europe with my high school choir. July 14, 1989, was the French bicentennial, and we were lucky enough to be one of several American choirs that had been invited to Paris to perform at the Eiffel Tower. For two weeks, we bused around western Europe, being American high school kids, taking in the sights and sounds and occasionally singing. Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral in London also highlighted the performance itinerary.

I'm all about experiencing another culture when traveling internationally. For example, when my German class took a spring-break trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland a year earlier, I drank beer. It would have been rude not to. But in France, I was never able to give myself over to the customary local cuisine. Tête de veau, also known as calf's head, never made it past my lips. I am proud to say that boudin noir, or black blood sausage, is something that I have never eaten. And this Kraft Macaroni & Cheese kid will never consider escargot, bulots, or any other shell-dwelling, slug-type creature to be food.

My doctor, however, not trusting that I'd stuck solely to Parisian Burger Kings, considered the European travels to be lump suspect number two.

Thinking it was probably an infection of some kind, likely picked up in one of the five countries where I'd spent my summer, the doctor prescribed an antibiotic. Two weeks of pills and all should be well.

It wasn't.

The days passed, classes started, I turned eighteen, the prescription ran its course, and the lump refused to respond. So back to the doctor I went.

This didn't particularly worry me. Just because it wasn't an easy fix didn't mean it wasn't fixable. And as far as I could tell, my parents weren't particularly worried either. When you hear hooves, you think horses. And we were still very much in that phase of discovery. Thoughts about zebras were still a long way off.

The doctor's diagnosis and suggested course of treatment at my second visit was more of the same, just a little more intense. His thought — and to this day I have no reason to think that he was practicing anything but sound and solid medicine — was that I was still suffering from an infection. An antibiotic, just one with a little more oomph, remained the most likely cure.

That is, until two more weeks passed, the prescription again ran its course, and not only did the lump remain, but two new, slightly smaller lumps on the other side of my neck had appeared. As before, there was no pain or tenderness with these new lumps. I could move them a little, each like a small marble attached to a short tether. Every time I'd finish exploring their limited range of real estate, the two fresh protuberances would pop back into place.

The mystery deepened, as did my doctor's concern. He never told me what he thought the ultimate diagnosis might be at that point. It would have been speculation, and that's not what he'd been trained or paid to do. But no doubt he had an educated guess. Instead I was referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who could presumably unlock the riddle definitively.

My level of anxiety grew, as did my parents'. But there was still no talk of worst-case scenarios when we sat around the dinner table. Physically, I felt just fine. And other than making trips to the doctor's office, our busy lives continued along uninterrupted. I've always been good at compartmentalizing potential issues from actual problems. When you feel healthy and life's other realities demand your full attention, it becomes fairly easy to do. The upcoming visit to the ENT was just one more thing to place on my after-school plate.

It's not every day that you have a monumentally significant, life-halting, life-altering conversation with your doctor. I've been so blessed to have no less than five of these conversations, the first coming on September 14, 1989.

I remember the exact date because it also happens to be my mother's birthday. She and I went together to see the ENT, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be the husband of a pediatrician whom my mother frequently scheduled for informational spots on Romper Room. It was good to have that connection, making him a friendly face by proxy. But the words that came out of his mouth when we first arrived were anything but welcome.

"Biopsy." "Lymphoma." "Cancer."

In an effort to slow down the rising blood pressures in the room, he stated quite flatly, and without a hint of irony (which is how the following statement should always be delivered), "If you're going to get cancer, this is the one to have."

I was a newly turned eighteen-year-old in the first month of my senior year. Doc, for the sake of argument, let's say I'm not going to get cancer. What might it be then?


Excerpted from Heart of iron by Kyle Garlett. Copyright © 2011 Kyle Garlett. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Kyle Garlett is an author, a motivational speaker, and a freelance sportswriter. He has written for ESPN The Magazine and FOXSports.com, and his previous books include What Were They Thinking? and The Worst Call Ever! He was named the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s 2011 Man of the Year for Greater Los Angeles.

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