In 2003, Derek Fitzgerald was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a type of blood cancer that primarily affects the immune system, after doctors removed a grapefruit-sized tumor from his intestines. Derek went into complete remission after going through chemotherapy, however, the chemo did significant damage to his heart and he spent the next seven years in heart failure. When he was 37 years old, Derek went into severe end-stage heart failure with his heart functioning at just 5%. He lost 128 pounds and wasn’t able to breathe on his own. Three days into 2011, he received his heart transplant, saving his life.
Although he wasn’t an athlete prior to his transplant, Derek finished his first 5K race just eight months after receiving his new heart. In 2013, he became the world’s first (and only) cancer survivor and heart transplant recipient to complete a full IRONMAN triathlon. Since his transplant, Derek has completed over 100 endurance races, including six IRONMAN triathlons, a 2.4-mile swim, and a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile run.
Derek started his own nonprofit organization, the Recycledman Foundation, to improve quality of life for those affected by significant health challenges by helping them become more active. Derek also has a video series, called “Limitless: Inspiring Stories from the Edge,” that highlights inspirational people who have pushed past their own challenges and are now living their best lives.
In addition to managing his own foundation, Derek is an active volunteer at his local organ procurement organization (OPO) in Philadelphia, the Gift of Life Donor Program, and volunteers for Donate Life America as well. As a volunteer, he shares his transplant story at donor family events, health fairs, and hospital staffing functions. He also volunteers with the IRONMAN Foundation and participates in many of the organization’s events and fundraising efforts. Derek regularly visits transplant patients in hospitals around the country and shares his story with them, answers their questions, and provides support. Derek is also active in online support groups for heart transplant recipients and patients who are on the transplant waitlist. He uses social media as a platform to advocate for organ donation and spread messages of hope to those in need.