Triathlete Beats Odds Using Another Man's Heart

Times Staff Writer

Next time you begin to grumble before heading out to jog a mile or two, think of Gary Clark.

Clark, 48, is an avid participant in triathlons. What makes that so extraordinary, however, is that Clark completes the grueling swim-bike-run events using another man's heart.

The Carlsbad resident is believed to be the first heart transplant recipient to ever accomplish that feat. Although doctors questioned whether he should--let alone, could--do it, Clark has finished 15 triathlons since getting a new heart in 1985. And that's just the start.

He is believed to be the only person with a heart transplant to run in a 10-kilometer or a 15-kilometer foot race. Clark has also completed a marathon and done a 50-mile bike event.

To top it off, he was named the 1986 comeback runner of the year by Runner's World magazine.

A husky 6-footer with a graying beard and sea-blue eyes, Clark is now preparing for the most awesome test of them all--the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

He hopes during the coming months to qualify for the 1988 edition of the event, a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, and he has no doubts that he will finish.

All that from a man who, until he got his new heart, epitomized the all-work, no-exercise, junk-food and let's-do-happy-hour sensibilities of a fast-track businessman.

As an Arizona-based executive vice president for a nationwide title insurance company, Clark used to run in a crowd he describes as "plastic people." He drove a Mercedes with a car phone, drank booze and ate at expensive restaurants until his American Express card bill swelled.

He kept an extra shirt and tie in his trunk just in case the partying went on too long.

Exercise seemed like a four-letter word. The bar scene was his arena instead.

When Clark stepped into his favorite pub each evening, the bartender would see him coming and have a Scotch and water waiting on the counter by the time he reached his stool.

"It was a self-destructive situation," he says today. "I never did any type of exercise. I'd park as close as I could to wherever I had to go. I would have parked inside the bar if I could have. It was a very shallow existence."

That all began to unravel when his health started to fail. What Clark thought was a prolonged bout with a cold was the first symptoms of a condition called viral cardio-myopathy, a type of virus that attacks and consumes the heart.

In early 1985, he finally relented and visited a hospital emergency room after a night of coughing.

After initial tests, Clark was sent to the University Medical Center in Tucson. It was there that he was told the bad news. He needed a heart transplant.

Clark was sent home with medication. But within weeks he purposely decided to stop taking it. A period of denial set in.

"This can't be happening to me," he thought. "I'll prove the doctors wrong." When his physicians began to see his condition slip and asked Clark if he was taking his medication, he lied.

Eventually, his situation became critical. In October, 1985, Clark was admitted to the medical center. For the next 34 days, his condition continued to deteriorate as he waited for a suitable donor. As he lay there, Clark had time to look back and think.

Priorities Changed

"You look like a damn Christmas tree, with all these things hooked up to you," he recalled. "Reality comes to the forefront. Your priorities begin to change drastically. I began to realize that all the materialistic B.S., the nice car, the good job, is worth nothing."

As the days ticked off, his physician, noted heart specialist Dr. Jack Copeland, told Clark that it might be necessary to use an artificial heart until a suitable replacement could be found.

By Thanksgiving Day, Copeland said Clark had perhaps 48 hours left. That evening, a heart became available, but it went to a heart-lung recipient. Two days later, another organ had yet to materialize and Copeland told Clark to get prepared for surgery so that the artificial heart could be implanted.

Hours before Clark was to be wheeled into the operating room, Copeland rushed in with news--a donor had been found. The father of Robert Tweed, a 19-year-old Phoenix man who had been brain dead for a week after an auto accident, had that very morning decided to remove his son from life support.

By 7 p.m., Clark was under the knife. When doctors tried to remove his heart, which was pumping at about 2% efficiency, it crumbled like burned paper.

Nonetheless, the operation was a success and within days Clark began a program of therapy. About nine weeks after the operation, he decided to do a 5-kilometer walk for recovering cardiac patients. The walk was coupled with a 10K run for the public.

'Healthy Atmosphere'

Clark could not believe what he saw. The runners, he said, exhibited "such a great attitude, such a high energy level. It was a healthy atmosphere. Everyone was so positive, so supportive, even to the people running slow." He decided to try a 10K run himself.

His doctor was a bit wary at first. No heart transplant patient had ever run a 10K before, Copeland said. But the physician relented, reasoning that Clark would know when to back off if problems cropped up.

Fifteen weeks after a new heart was placed in his chest, Clark ran the 10K without a hitch.

He was hooked.

Later, he went to a running store to buy some shoes and picked up some literature on triathlons. "Hmmm, sounds interesting," he mused.

Without telling his doctors, Clark began riding his bike and swimming at a local pool. When Clark told his nurses that he had filled out an application for an upcoming triathlon, they broke out in laughter. "Gary, you're not even healed," they said. "You have to train seriously for one of those things."

Copeland, however, agreed to let Clark try an event if he passed two tests--a biopsy that would show whether the heart was being rejected, and a tread-mill typically given heart patients one year after surgery. Clark sailed through both.

"Dr. Copeland said, 'Clark, a deal's a deal. Good luck,' " he recalled.

Becomes a Triathlete

With nurses at each of the aid stations along the route, Clark completed the course. Barely nine months after getting a new heart, Gary Clark was a triathlete.

It didn't stop there. Clark entered an event in Denver--and immediately met the wrath of the race organizers. The medical director for the Bud Lite U.S. Triathlon Series, Dr. Doug Hiller, called Clark to argue that he shouldn't do the event. Clark, however, was not about to be denied and argued his case.

"They had visions of the headlines," Clark recalls with a laugh. "Instead of 'Such and Such Wins Triathlon' it would be 'Heart Transplant Patient Drops Dead on Bike During Triathlon.' "

Eventually, Hiller and other officials relented. It was not until about a year later they learned that Clark, during his negotiations with Hiller over the telephone, had been sitting propped up in a hospital bed getting treatment for kidney problems stemming from the heart transplant.

The Denver event also went well, despite the altitude. When Clark finished, race organizers insisted he head immediately to the medical tent. Clark recalls the doctor in charge listening to his chest and acting somewhat flustered by the thought of a heart transplant patient running in a triathlon.

"That doctor was so stressed out that, honest to God, I had to calm him down," Clark said with a laugh.

Continued to Compete

Clark continued to compete, flying to far-flung events for virtually nothing because his daughter from a former marriage is an airline flight attendant. It was at the Phoenix leg of the U.S. Triathlon Series that he experienced perhaps his most poignant moment.

At the start of the race, organizers introduced Clark to the crowd as the only heart transplant patient ever to compete in a triathlon. The public address announcer went on to say that the family and friends of Robert Tweed, the young man whose heart now beat in Clark's chest, were in the audience.

It seems that Tweed's family had read about Clark doing triathlons and were touched by his efforts. At each checkpoint of the Phoenix race, they stood on the sidelines and cheered Clark on.

"It was a real strong feeling," Clark recalls, tears welling in his eyes. "They appreciated what I was doing. It was great. What better way could I have of saying 'thank you' to them."

A few weeks into his recuperation, Clark realized that he could never return to the fast-paced world of title insurance sales.

"I was a plastic, phony slob behind this three-piece suit," he said. "I'm real ashamed of it. I'm not proud of it at all."

Most of his belongings were sold to help pay his astronomical medical bills. Today, he gets by on a monthly federal disability check. He reads, puts in hours of training in each event, writes letters to well-wishers.

Now Lives in Carlsbad

About a month ago, he moved from Arizona to Carlsbad so he could be closer to his family. Today, he lives in a cozy one-bedroom apartment overlooking the sea, making ends meet by keeping a tight rein on his budget.

He takes 28 different medications each day to ward off complications from his surgery. Still, problems sometimes arise. Before a big race in Solana Beach in September, Clark had to drop out beforehand and enter the hospital for treatment.

But to Clark, such bumps on the road are a small price to pay.

"You've got life," he says. "How can you bitch about side effects? They go with the territory. I've had a little over two years of life I didn't have two years ago. Every day is another bonus for me."

Despite hours of training, his heart will never provide the punch Clark would need to become a top triathlete in his age group. During transplants, surgeons are still unable to connect two key nerve systems that control the heart's ability to react quickly during exercise.

Finishing Counts

Clark must begin each event gradually, in a series of starts and slowdowns, until the cadence of his heart has a chance to catch up. Typically, he finishes races at the back of the pack.

It doesn't bother Clark at all. During the National Championship in September at Hilton Head, S.C., Clark took time during the race to stop and pose for pictures with fans along the route. He finished dead last, but he finished.

Indeed, just participating is enough for Clark. He revels in the simple joy of being able to take another stroke, to pedal his bike another mile, to put one foot in front of another and see the race to its end.

"I'm doing it because it makes me feel good," Clark says. "Also, I hope I can give other people confidence that, whatever their medical problem, there is something they can do. To be able to give like that is better than a daily paycheck."

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