Iron Heart

UPDATED: December 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: December 5, 2011

Depending on the day of the week, Brian Boyle’s schedule goes something like this: Wake up at 6 a.m., have a quick breakfast, hit the pool for a two-hour swim followed by a 20-mile run and maybe a four-hour bike ride.

Such is the life of a person preparing for one of the most challenging sporting events on the planet—the Ironman triathlon.

With a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile full marathon, the Ironman competition represents the survival of the fittest. The training regimen alone is something the 25-year-old from Welcome, Md., is lucky to be able to maintain—considering that just a few years ago, doctors told him he might never walk again. And during surgeries, he technically died eight times.

In 2004, Boyle was 18 and at the top of his game, graduating from high school and looking forward to college. A competitive swimmer, his best events were the sprint-based 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly. On July 6, as Boyle headed home from swim practice, a dump truck broadsided his Chevy Camaro as he crossed an intersection.

Pulled from the gnarled wreckage, Boyle had suffered extensive trauma, with lacerated liver, collapsed lungs, nonfunctioning kidneys and heart pushed to one side, among other injuries. “I had 60 percent blood loss and pretty much every major organ was damaged,” he says. At Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, Md., doctors placed Boyle in a chemically induced coma and performed a total of 14 operations, requiring 36 blood transfusions. During all this, his heart stopped eight times.

After months in the hospital, Boyle finally regained consciousness, but his road to recovery was just beginning. Because his pelvis had been crushed, doctors were doubtful he would ever walk again.

One thing that kept him motivated was his family. “My parents and I have always been best friends and that was the great thing about having that support system in the hospital. I just kept thinking, this may be bad now, but I’m thinking about my parents, and it’s a thousand times worse for them. So what I have to do is push aside all this negativity and put on a smile for my parents, because they are going through enough already.”

The accident not only put a hold on his athletic aspirations, but also his goals overall, and Boyle was very serious about his goals. “When I graduated from high school, the three short-term, realistic goals I had were to go to college, be on the swim team and one day attempt an Ironman,” he says. “But the accident put everything on standby. I really didn’t know if it was ever going to be possible to achieve those dreams.”

Despite everything, Boyle was not despondent. The very process of having set those goals, maintaining the discipline to work toward incremental benchmarks, and knowing the immense rewards of attaining them gave Boyle an advantage during his recovery. He knew he had to set new goals and a new plan to attack them—as well as a new timetable that would test him in a new way. “I had to just push forward every day and take it one step at a time, very slowly.”

After two months in the intensive care unit and a week in a rehab center, Boyle went home and continued outpatient therapy. Meantime, his support system grew stronger. “Team Boyle,” comprising Brian and his mom and dad, had matching shirts made and developed a website where friends and well-wishers could cheer him on toward a full recovery and his goal of competing in an Ironman World Championship.

On Oct. 13, 2007, three years after he was told he wouldn’t walk, Boyle completed the Ironman in Hawaii—in 14 hours, 42 minutes and 25 seconds. “It was the greatest day of my life; it was awesome,” he says. “That was the step back into life, the breath of life all over again. When I crossed the finish line in Hawaii, I was showing everyone, including myself, that I wasn’t sick anymore. I wasn’t Brian the boy in the wheelchair, I was Brian the Ironman.”

Boyle recounts his remarkable journey in his 2009 memoir Iron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back from the Dead. It was a book that began when he was released from the hospital, although he didn’t know it at the time. “When I left the hospital, my nurses told me I was going to go through physical therapy, but I also needed to focus on the emotional therapy, too,” he says. “And they told me to keep a journal of the progress so I could visually see the improvement on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. That’s really pretty much how the book was started.” And the title Iron Heart? “The title came from the fact that the main concern in the hospital was my heart. It sustained the most damage of all the organs, and the most operations were done on my heart, from what I was told.”

Today, Brian Boyle’s Iron Heart story continues to inspire others and exemplify the importance of setting goals. He went to school for graphic design and upon graduating cum laude from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2010, ran his first 50-mile ultramarathon, completed his third Ironman in 10:14, and also made his first blood donation to the hospital that brought him back to life.

In 2011, Boyle launched the Red Cross Iron Heart Campaign to help raise blood donation awareness on a national level for the organization he credits with helping save his life—the American Red Cross. “When I was going through physical therapy in Baltimore, I remember being in this wheelchair and looking around at the other patients and thinking to myself, ‘I may actually leave here one day and make a full recovery,’ ” he recalls. “I felt lucky at that time because a lot of the patients there may never walk again, they may never leave that unit. I promised myself right then and there that if I ever left that rehab center, I would do everything I possibly could to take my experiences and my background and use them in a positive way to help in as many forms as possible. And what better way to start than with the foundation of my recovery, the Red Cross?”

As for Boyle’s next goal? Getting back to the World Championship Ironman in Hawaii, of course. “It was great that I finished the one in 2007, but now I have to try and earn my way back by qualifying like everybody else. When I crossed the finish line in Kona I made a promise to myself that one day I would get back there on my own… and not on my story,” he says, referring to exceptions to the rigorous qualifying requirements made for him because of his extraordinary circumstances. “The endurance races like the Ironman triathlons and marathons have personally become much more than challenging athletic events, they have become a lifestyle. What started out as a way to complete my recovery has now become a way to show my appreciation to the people who have been a part of my journey back to life.

“Crossing the finish line at any event is my way of saying thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years—my parents, family, friends, coach, doctors, surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, rescue workers, blood donors, and the list goes on and on. Just to even make it to the starting line at these races is a gift, but to finish is so meaningful. When my heart is beating fast and the adrenaline and blood are pumping rapidly out on the course, this once was a sign that I was dying, but now they are a sign that I’m living.”