In the fall of 1982, Dwight Kroening was about to enter the University of Alberta as a physical education student. His admission required a routine physical where his doctor discovered an enlarged heart, which was brushed off as nothing more than Dwight being an athlete. The 21-year old felt easily winded during exercise. He attributed it to getting older and losing some fitness, so he worked out even more.
He thought his body would adapt. He finished school, married his wife Colleen, and moved to Arizona in 1985. After living in the desert for a few months, Dwight felt worse. He couldn’t walk up stairs without stopping to rest. His lungs were filling up with fluid. He thought he had Valley Fever. It turned out that his heart had been harboring a severe viral infection for four years. He was showing all the signs of cardiac arrest. “I was a ticking time bomb. On June 6th, they told me I had two months to live,” he recounted, “They knew I needed help right away. I was lucky to be a universal recipient. After weeks of preparation, I was only on the transplant list, on the beeper, for two weeks when I got the call.”
Dwight received his new heart on August 4, 1986. His was the 100th heart transplant performed at the Tucson Medical Center in five years.
His two biggest concerns going into the surgery were his wife and how they would pay for it. “I worried about complications and it was so difficult to watch her wait for me to get a donor heart.” Fortunately, her company had just switched health plans. The insurance company had just re-classified heart transplants as clinical instead of experimental. The $40,000 initial assessment and approximately $200,000 in transplant costs would be covered for the young couple.
The doctors waited for Dwight to awaken in the recovery room. They asked him to move his fingers. “I remember really having to think about it to get the signal down to the fingers to move. It was their way of determining if there was brain damage or not,” he recalled with a chuckle, “Then they asked me to move my toes. I thought ‘boy, that’s a long way down.’ I was able to make the fingers and toes move.”
Dwight was in the hospital for 17 days. As soon as he was able, he went down to inpatient rehabilitation. “I really looked forward to it. It was the highlight of my day,” he said. Remarkably, he was running, biking and lifting weights in the hospital.
Once he was discharged, he rode his bicycle six miles to and from the hospital for his outpatient rehabilitation. Where he ran three miles and lifted weights. When his scars healed enough, he also swam a half-mile to a mile in the university’s pool. He was training like a triathlete long before his first triathlon.
More than anything, he wanted to live a normal life. But he discovered that his new heart did have some limitations. He couldn’t do contact sports anymore because of the high risk of damage. He couldn’t push himself anaerobically because the nerve attachments to his heart that receive signals for oxygen demand at a high heart rate from the brain like a light switch had been severed.
“That was a real adjustment. I was still determined to prove them wrong,” he explained, “I wanted to believe in the miracle that the body is an amazing creation that can adapt and learn all sorts of things. I wasn’t at a place where I was willing to accept it. I continued to work at it and continued to play sports.”
Nine months after his surgery, the doctors had more bad news for them in a routine check-up. The doctors gently informed them that they would not be able to have children. Dwight and Colleen smiled. The week before, they had just learned that she was pregnant with their first child. The doctors were elated.
They had a son. They were happy. For a while, they worried about how much Dwight’s heart could take. “You really have live life in balance,” he said. “We waited five years before we had our other two boys.”
“For me to enjoy life, I have to be physically active. There’s nothing more that I like to do than enjoy sports and activities,” he explained, “Especially with my three boys. That’s what regenerates me. That’s what reinvigorates me, relieves the stress in my life, and makes me feel good. When I stop, I feel like I’m digressing.”
So when Dwight was invited by the University of Alberta to participate in a 16-week exercise study in 2001, he jumped at the opportunity. “It gave me a chance to really test what my heart can do without fear. Before that it was always in the back of mind, I can’t go all out. I had to control what I do. I had to pace myself and really monitor my activity,” he recalled.
He told the researchers, “I want you to push me as hard as you can and I’ll go as hard as I can. We want to see what this thing can do.” His pre-assessment VO2 was 48. Fourteen weeks into the study, they had him do intervals. He pushed himself so hard that he finished each session with the dry heaves. His post-assessment showed a VO2 of 59 – a whopping 30% improvement. Anything over 55 is considered an elite athlete.
Fifteen years after his transplant surgery, he finally had the confidence to take his training to a new level. “One of the guys who helped in the study was a triathlete, Ken Riess,” he said, “He’s my coach now. He trained me first for a sprint. The next year, I did a half.” His coach told him, “If you can do a half, you can do a full one.”
In 2006, Dwight Kroening raced Ironman Canada. His coach and heart researcher met him at various checkpoints on the racecourse by riding ahead on their bikes and rollerblades. The chief cardiologist from the University of Alberta, Dr. Burton and his wife, the transplant coordinator waited by the transition area. His wife and family were there on the sidelines. Everyone was cheering for him all day and especially when he crossed the finish line in 15 hours and 33 minutes. He became the first heart transplant recipient to ever complete an Ironman-distance event – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run.
Two weeks ago, he completed the BMO Vancouver Marathon in 4:01. His goal this fall is to run a sub-3:45 marathon to break the current record held by a heart transplant recipient in Dublin, Ireland. He ran with his coach and heart researcher.
When Dwight is not juggling his career, training, and quality time with his family, he’s mentoring other transplant recipients through the GoodHearts Mentoring Foundation and creating organ donor awareness through the HOPE program (Human Organ Procurement and Exchange) and the Canadian Transplant Association. In 2011, he plans to compete in Ironman Arizona in Tucson to celebrate his 25th anniversary with a new heart made possible by the Tucson Medical Center and a very generous donor family.
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.