How a heart transplant has helped Ironman Kyle beat cancer and heart failure
Heart transplants can transform lives as well as saving them, as Kyle Garlett's experience shows. He tells Sarah Brealey how he has beaten both cancer and heart failure. Plus you can watch our video of Kyle and athlete Louise Hazel.
Kyle Garlett, 42, has taken part in two extreme Ironman triathlons since his heart transplant surgery, but finds the Transplant Games is even more inspirational. Kyle has competed twice, and says: “The whole experience is really special. It is a great way to celebrate donors, to meet other recipients and to be physically active in a way you wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
Kyle’s achievements are all the more remarkable given that he has fought cancer four times, starting when he was just 18. Repeated chemotherapy left him needing a hip and shoulder replacement, with scarring of his lungs and a severely damaged heart.
Staying positive in those dark days has, he says, been the greatest challenge Kyle has faced. “The greatest challenge has been keeping hope for the future, to keep myself going forward. I had cancer four times. Each time it came back my belief that I had a life to live became less and less.”
The greatest challenge has been keeping hope for the future
Kyle, who was then living in Los Angeles, spent more than five years on the transplant list. He was able to stay at home, but used to black out when he stood up and couldn’t even carry a bag of shopping.
He says: “I would go to the grocery store with my wife and she would be carrying five bags of groceries to the car, while I wouldn’t be carrying anything. I always hated that and worried what people were thinking when they saw me.”
He says he didn’t realise at the time how much of an effect it had on him emotionally: “I didn’t realise until I got the phone call [saying a heart was available], and all of a sudden this massive weight is lifted. It is like wearing ankle weights all the time, and then they are taken off and you can jump ten feet in the air.”
Kyle, who now lives in London and is a writer and motivational speaker, said he felt some nerves about the transplant surgery, but mainly excitement. “The realisation that from tomorrow I am going to be getting healthier as opposed to every day a bit sicker - how wonderful that felt. I can’t describe how exciting that is.”
As he recovered he was overjoyed to feel himself getting stronger every week. “There is still a part of me that almost feels like a child – that feeling that you can run and jump and play forever. I try to tap into that feeling of joy because I know the opposite feeling, where you can’t do anything.”
He’s always loved sports, but “wasn’t particularly brilliant at it”, so started his career as a sports writer instead. After his transplant, Kyle decided to do a triathlon, and enjoyed it so much he did another one – and then with his doctor’s permission, decided to do an Ironman triathlon on the third anniversary of his transplant.
It is like wearing ankle weights all the time, and then they are taken off and you can jump ten feet in the air
Exercising after a transplant offers different challenges to transplant recipients. As Kyle explains, “When they do the transplant they don’t reconnect the nerves, so my brain and heart don’t communicate in the same way.
My heart doesn’t respond to signals from my brain, but responds to an increase in adrenaline in the blood instead. It means I am a much slower engine to warm up and it is a much longer cool down. But nearly eight years after my transplant I have gotten the hang of it and I am pretty in touch with my body.”
Kyle says he’d encourage others to get active after recovery from heart surgery, if their health allows – although not necessarily to such extreme levels as he has. “Doing an Ironman is on the crazy side of things. Running a 5k or taking up cycling or competing in the Transplant Games is a much more sane thing to do and just as rewarding.”
He says that one of his favourite things about the Transplant Games is hearing the stories of other recipients. He says: “Usually when I go through life people I meet haven’t experienced the same thing that I have, but here I am surrounded by people who know exactly what I’ve been through and where I am in life.”.
Exercising after a heart transplant or other heart surgery
After heart surgery, increase your level of activity gradually, starting with walking around your house, then short walks outside. Try to do some activity each day. Remember to cool down at the end of your session.
Avoid heavy lifting, twisting, pushing or pulling until your breastbone is healed, which will take three to four months.
You should be invited to cardiac rehabilitation, which teaches you how to exercise safely. Regular physical activity can help with your recovery, help protect your heart and reduce your risk of having further heart problems.
Every day, three people die in the UK waiting for an organ. For those with end-stage heart failure, a heart transplant is their only hope of treatment. You can help. By signing the Organ Donor Register and becoming a donor, you could save the lives of up to nine people. Don’t forget to tell your loved ones about your wishes.