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HEADstrong Gala: IRONMAN Fitzgerald is Nicholas E. Colleluori Award winner for overcoming Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, heart transplant

Tuesday, 25th March 2014

Categories Boy's/Men's, Girl's/Women's, HEADstrong  

By Chris Goldberg, Posted 3/25/14

Derek Fitzgerald has beaten Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and near-complete heart failure.


“I’ve got a great support system, with my wife and family, and I really never looked at the mountain I had to climb,” he said. “I took just one step ahead and kept it that way.”

Derek, LeeAnn Fitzgerald

Nicholas E. Colleluori Award winner Derek Fitzgerald with wife LeeAnn

Fitzgerald, 41, of Harleysville, was honored Friday night at the annual HEADstrong Gala at the Hyatt Regency in Philly with the prestigious Nicholas E. Collelouri Award.

His story is equally amazing, inspirational and heartwarming.

His resolve is unmatched.

In 2003, at 30, Fitzgerald was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and in May of the next year he was cancer free. The problem, however, is that his heart went into failure from the heavy doses of chemo.

Remarkably, Fitzgerald lived the next six years with the deteriorating condition of heart failure.

“Three months after I finished chemo we were getting our lives (with his wife, LeeAnn) back on track and I thought I had dodged a substantial bullet,” he said. “I realized I was in heart failure.”

Fiztgerald managed to survive the six years with this debilitating condition because his body compensated for the low heart function. But in 2010, while at 5 percent heart function, he neared death.

“I wasn’t on the heart transplant list until 2010,” said Fitzgerald, who suffered from a persistent cough and bouts of dizziness. “My health took a huge turn for the worse and I couldn’t lift my head or arms.

“My heart function was down to 5 percent. That was as low as you can go without actually checking out.”

Four months later, Fitzgerald received a heart transplant. He says after that he “has not looked back since.” Fiztgerald competed in 17 endurance races in 2012, including marathons, half-marathons and triathlons, and then in 2013 he did an IRONMAN.

“If you can make it through the next hour and make it through the next day … that’s what you focus on,” he said, noting he has a daughter that’s 2 and a half months old. “I took it as goal never to look at the big picture.”

What advice would he give to others that face serious illnesses?

“Surviving cancer is a gift and it was a major wake up call for me and how I wanted to live my life,” he said. “All those hopes and dreams I said I wanted I had to forget.

“You have to live life now and enjoy what you can while you can. Try to take nothing for granted because no one is promised anything.”


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