Each year, thousands of individuals make the generous decision to become organ and tissue donors, and we are grateful to the families who gave others the precious gift of life during one of the most difficult times in their lives.  

These remarkable gifts have given individuals like Derek Fitzgerald, a businessman from Montgomery County, PA, a second chance at life.

"Eight months after transplant, I competed in my first 5K run; two months after that, my first half marathon."

Weighing the possibilities

I went into surgery for a heart transplant in January 2011 on a Monday night and by dinnertime on Tuesday I was using a walker to shuffle my very grateful body through the hallways outside my hospital room. I had been sick for almost a decade. The chemotherapy that had successfully treated my cancer had also left me with a weak and failing heart. For a long time, I had hoped that medications and good living would save me from the need for a transplant. Those hopes vanished as I went into the final days of having all of my original factory issued parts.  

The day before the transplant I sat in bed struggling to breathe, wondering how much longer I could go on. After the surgery and after I heard those first heartbeats, an amazing thing happened: I began to think about the possibility of a future.  

Pushing through

I left the hospital in seven days. It wasn't easy, but I pushed myself hard to eat right, manage my meds and get moving. My muscles had atrophied in the hospital and I had lost a lot of weight, so victories came slowly at first; learning how to walk without assistance, lifting myself out of bed, taking the first step on the impossibly long flight of stairs to the bedroomeverything had to be rebuilt. As the months passed, my weight began to come back, my meds decreased and most importantly, I was able to recover without rejection.

Eight months after my transplant, I competed in my first 5K run; two months after that, my first half marathon. The following year I competed in 17 different endurance events, including my first Donor Dash 5K, a 200 mile relay run, a full marathon and several triathlons. At the Transplant Games of America this past summer, I heard a quote that really hit home: "Live like your donor is watching," an easy concept for me to grasp. I offer thanks to my donor every day, and even though I know nothing of the person that they were, I think about the values that went into the decision to donate their organs and try to use the example they set as the rudder that steers my way in this world.

This year, Derek and his wife LeeAnn became the proud parents of a baby girl, Emma, and he is busy training for the Transplant Games of America, which will be held in Houston, TX from July 11 to July 16.