Adam Fitzgerald: A Journey From Hospital to Hope

Over the past year you may have heard the inspiring stories of runners Diane van Deren and Amy Palmiero-Winters. Diane, whose epilepsy was cured by aggressive brain surgery in 1997, was named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year for 2009 for being the first woman to finish the Yukon Artic Ultra 430-mile race. In the second half of 2009, Amy, a single leg amputee, set an unofficial 50-mile amputee record, broke that record again with an 8:43, and then won the Heartland 100. Well, just in time for the holidays, we’ve got another inspiring runner for you: Adam Fitzgerald.

Adam, a pastoral care minister at Seacoast Church in South Carolina, is no stranger to endurance sports. While in high school he ran the mile, but focused more on competitive cycling. After the theft of his bike during college, Adam focused his attention on running. He picked up some local sponsorship and busted out sub-17:00 minute 5ks and a 1:21 half marathon. However, after a few years of racing, Adam burned out and gave up competitive running.

Fast forward to 2000. Adam is lying in a hospital bed. Complications from asthma have him on the brink of being intubated. During his week in the hospital he decides he should run a marathon, something he previously swore he’d never do during his earlier running days. A year later, he ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon and, as he says, “caught the distance bug.”

Two years later, Adam was out for a short run with his brother. Four miles in, Adam stopped and vomited. Something didn’t seem right. Over the next few weeks he couldn’t eat, so he eventually returned to the surgeon who had removed his appendix six months early. The doctor could find nothing wrong. Two months after the initial incident, Adam was down to 120 pounds and was starting to lose motor control.

In search of answers, Adam got a second opinion from his neurosurgeon. Again, the tests showed nothing… until two weeks later when he returned to the doctor. A brain fluid culture showed Adam had a slowly growing brain infection. Ninety minutes later, Adam was in surgery. The surgeons replaced the shunt that drains Adam’s brain. The new shunt was Adam’s fifth. He’s had them continually since doctors discovered he was hydrocephalic when he was three months old.

Adam recovering after a brain surgery

A month after two surgeries in 2003, Adam told his wife he wanted to run a 50k in nearby Charleston. She consented. Seven months later, he completed his first ultra. As it turns out, the 50k would be far from Adam’s biggest challenge. Since 2003, he’s had 13 surgeries, including 11 brain surgeries. A second brain infection led his neurosurgeon to replace Adam’s existing shunt that drained excess brain fluid to his abdominal cavity with one that drained to his heart’s atrium. That shunt has since been replaced multiple times due to a series of malfunctions.

Adam Fitzgerald 50kAdam running in his first 50k in 2003

As if hydrocephaly weren’t enough of a challenge, Adam also suffers from a form of vertigo called BPPV. When untreated, BPPV leaves the afflicted feeling as if they are moving even while at rest. From 1994 through 2007, Adam had five ear surgeries to try and correct the problem. However, in 2008 the condition worsened to the point where Adam had to give up his martial arts teaching position. (He has black belts in taekwando and tang soo do, as well as a purple belt in a Korean sword art.) He also had to stop driving. Non-invasive treatments did not correct the problem. That led Adam to have a lab labyrinthectomy in October 2008.

What is a labyrinthectomy? In short, the balance center in the inner ear is removed. In some cases, including Adam’s, this involves drilling. The surgery put him through “living hell for a week” until his brain corrected. And then he started relearning how to walk.

Early in the summer of 2009, Adam decided he wanted to end the year on his terms. He started looking for local ultras. It turns out that he’d long been fascinated by 12-hour runs and had planned a 12-hour self-support track run prior to his second brain infection and resultant surgeries. Fortunately for Adam, there’s a 12-hour option at the Freedom Park New Year’s Ultra in Morganton, North Carolina on New Year’s Eve.

Adam FitzgeraldFollowing his labrynthectomy, Adam couldn’t run more than 50 meters. He slowly increased his training to the point where he was able to log two runs of 29 and 30 miles in recent weeks. His training has been aided by his longest surgery-free streak in 11 years – almost 14 months. (Adam, right, following a brain surgery)

On Thursday, Adam will test his training and his resolve for 12 hours. He says he’ll be satisfied with 40 miles, happy with 50 miles, and ecstatic with 60 miles. Even though we think that his stepping up to the starting line is a victory, we wish him the best of luck in achieving his goals and hope you will, too. We’re sure your encouragement would mean a great deal!

Adam intends to provide Twitter updates from the course. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/AdamFitzgerald.

[Update: Adam ran a stellar 55 miles in 12 hours at the Freedom Park New Year’s Ultra. Officials missed two early laps and credit Adam with 53.43 miles.]

We’ll close with two thoughts Adam shared during our interview:

  • I would have preferred not to have had those surgeries and gone through the hard times, but it’s an asset in this line of work [as a pastoral care minister].
  • Relentless forward progress is a mentality that you can use in everyday life.

There are 6 comments

  1. Casseday

    Good luck to Adam this weekend. When I lived in Charleston in '05 while doing a rotation, I actually attended SeaCoast Church. Small world and incredible story.

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