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Triathlete Beats Odds Using Another Man's Heart

January 02, 1988|ERIC BAILEY | 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.

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