Kyle Garlett is ready to let go of the fear he used to have when pushing himself to his physical limit.
For so long, the Marina del Rey resident would have to hold back when he felt he was being tested too much.
It was all part of the struggle that came with having a heart condition and not really knowing how much his body could take during physical activity. But less than two years after receiving a heart transplant, Garlett is prepared to put that fear behind him and go the distance.
“Prior to the transplant I was afraid to push myself because I thought it wasn’t safe,” said Garlett, 36, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas and has lived in Marina del Rey for four years. “I was so used to being compromised and pulling back.
“Now, it’s a matter of letting go of that fear and pushing myself. It’s amazing what I can do now.”
Since having his transplant operation on October 10th, 2006, Garlett says he feels great, using the difference between “night and day” to compare how he used to feel physically with a weakened heart and how he feels now.
The freelance sportswriter notes that he has faced some changes with having a transplanted organ, but his new heart is strong enough to have already taken him through some grueling activities.
“My heart will never operate fully normally, but it has gotten me across the finish line of two triathlons,” he said proudly.
While some might believe that athletes would be limited after having gone through such an extensive surgery, Garlett has his sights set on physical challenges that those who have never received a transplant might not even attempt.
Garlett has already taken on triathlon competitions with his wife of three years, Carrie. Next up is the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games involving athletes who have received life-saving organ transplants, scheduled Friday through Wednesday, July 11th through 16th, in Pittsburgh.
Garlett eventually wants to attempt a half, and later a full version of the Iron Man competition, considered one of the ulti- mate physical tests, as it takes competitors consecutively through a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run.
Asked why he is not satisfied just being able to breathe air every day and chooses to push himself to such physical lengths, Garlett answers that it’s a way to prove he can achieve goals that at one time seemed unattainable.
“It’s because I shouldn’t be able to do it,” he says of his desire for grueling activities. “For so long I couldn’t do anything and now I can.
“There’s a joy in it. It’s a celebration of life and vitality and the second chance I’ve been given.”
Garlett developed his heart condition after experiencing three bouts of Hodgkin’s disease, which began when he was just 24. During the course of treatment, he received a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy, which cured the Hodgkin’s but led to the secondary illness, leukemia, and eventually damaged his heart.
Through continuous treatment Garlett was cured of leukemia but his heart remained weakened, causing him to need a transplant. He was placed on the waiting list for a new heart, a wait that lasted five-and-a-half years until a donor was found.
Although he said it was a fearful time, Garlett always believed the transplant would come and he recalls feeling both nervousness and excitement the day he finally got the call.
“I knew that after the transplant I’d be getting stronger,” he said of his thoughts prior to the operation.
He knows little of the donor, other than that he was a 42-year-old construction worker who was killed on the job. But while Garlett may not have known the man, he says he is grateful for the “gift” he provided, has sent a thank-you letter to the donor’s family and can feel the man beating inside his chest.
Garlett expresses gratitude for his life-saving operation by wearing a red rubber bracelet saying “Recycled Heart” and “10-10-06,” the day of the procedure. He attributes his recovery to the support he received from family and friends, as well as the inner strength he found to not lose hope.
“If you get thrown in the water, your choices are to sink or swim — I chose to swim,” he said. “We, as humans, are a lot stronger than we give ourselves credit for.”
The experience, he says, was both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to him.
Garlett jokes that he “wasn’t exactly a catch” when he first met his wife Carrie, but she helped support him through the recovery and now pushes him on the competitive level. The couple was married in front of a television audience on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition.
Carrie Garlett acknowledges that witnessing her husband compete can cause some anxiety but most of all she’s proud to see his transformation.
“It’s so much fun to be able to watch him progress from where he had been in an encumbered physical state,” she said. “From the wife side of things, I get a little nervous.”
The Garletts, who have competed together in triathlons, consider themselves fortunate to be able to share the experience and they note that each is an inspiration for the other.
When preparing for triathlons, Kyle Garlett says he trains six days a week concentrating on each of the three stages of swimming, biking and running. He gets the most enjoyment out of the swimming and biking stages, but just “tolerates” the running portion.
Later this month Garlett will compete in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle swimming events and the 5K cycling time trial and 20K road race at the Transplant Games, a commitment he made prior to the transplant. The event will help raise awareness for transplant operations and also celebrate the “gift” that the athletes have been given, he said.
“It’s a celebration of where I’ve come to from where I was,” he said. “I get this gift of a new heart and it’s my way of making sure that gift is appreciated.”
National Kidney Foundation communications director Ellie Schlam said the Transplant Games transcend the sports, as many of the athletes have “been at death’s door” and are experiencing the difference that organ donation has made.
“There’s a certain spirit to the Games,” Schlam said. “It’s a reminder of what a transplant can do and it’s a goal for the athletes.”
Aside from his craving for competition, Garlett spends time writing sports books such as The Worst Call Ever, which analyzes mistakes of referees and umpires, and he gives motivational speeches at sporting events and schools.
More than a decade after first being faced with a life-threatening illness, Garlett advises those battling similar obstacles to focus on the joys of life.
“There’s always a reserve of strength you haven’t tapped into,” he said. “Life is just too great to not want to keep living it.”