“I lost 3 siblings to a rare disease in childhood so I grew up knowing to make the most of life. I traveled the world, married a beautiful woman and had three wonderful children. But then that rare disease from my past burst back into my life. I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis or IPF, a scarring and hardening of the lungs. A progressive, non-curable illness. That was the day life set a huge mountain in front of me, and being a willful, red-headed Meath man, I decided to climb it.”
David Crosby has an incredible story of adversity, recovery, pure Meath stubbornness and the determination to overcome. He is probably the only Irish survivor of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis to have completed a marathon, and definitely the only one who wants to do six of them in different countries across the world. But David is a strong-willed, Meath man who doesn’t know how to quit. He broke the record for Irish organ recipient patients when he finished the New York City Marathon in 6.15.31. Now the 42-year old and father-of-three has now set his sights on achieving every amateur runner’s dream. He wants to be a member of the “Super Six” club, a small group with a medal only given to finishers of the New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons.
As well as a challenge-lover, David is a passionate fundraiser. He’s an all-weathers awareness raiser and, as an organ recipient, he’s focused on advancing care for others especially those people with his rare condition.
He’s also someone who’s known great personal loss at an early stage of his life, and overcome significant barriers to be in the position he is today.
“I lost two brothers and a sister to a rare lung disease. My sister, Regina, and my brother, Paul, passed away while very young… it’s a very hard thing to bury a baby in a white coffin. My brother, Ciaran, lived for 11 years and wrote a book about his life, called “Too Many Angels” whereby the proceeds went to charity.
So I grew up knowing to make the most of life. I was always out and playing sports, soccer, Gaelic and basketball. My biggest achievement was getting to an All-Ireland Final with the Meath Minor Panel. The disease that had robbed me of Regina, Paul and Ciaran was always somewhere in the back of my mind. But I tried to live in the day-to-day, pushing it off by thinking that if I could get to ‘old’ then I’d deal with it.
In the meantime, between work and raising the family, my lifestyle became more sedentary. I put on a bit of extra weight. I’d always loved being active but like a lot of people, I found it hard to find the time for it. So to be in a position now where I’m running half-marathons and marathons around the world after overcoming a non-curable, life-threatening illness is like the descent after summitting a mountain.”
David first developed symptoms of IPF towards the end of August 2015. At first, he thought it was a dry cough and took antibiotics. But given his family history, he was referred for an x-ray of the lungs by his local GP and later had a biopsy up in the Mater. He will always remember the day he was diagnosed with IPF as one of the most frightening and upsetting days of his life.
“Myself and my wife Kate left the doctor’s office. We were stunned, caught off-guard. To say we were devastated would be putting it mildly. The news was that I’d a condition which, if untreated, would see the end of me in a year and a half or two years. So we went home and had a good cry. We told my parents and my sister and tried to sugar coat it. But four weeks later I had to be put on 24 hour oxygen and the sound of it in the house, which we remembered from when my brother Ciaran was on oxygen, brought back very painful memories for everyone.
But I worked up the mindset that I had to deal with it. I’ve red hair, I’m from Meath and I’m too stubborn to ever give up.
In our home we have a family motto, just ask the kids. Its failure is not an option and I know now that after coming through this ordeal there will be nothing that we cannot achieve.”
However, it wasn’t that simple at the start. David’s condition continued inevitably to deteriorate despite being treated with medication. IPF is a progressive illness without a cure. Despite how scary that might sound, David was determined it wasn’t going to radically change or cut short his life. He brought forward a family holiday to America and took his children to New York, which he’d visited before while travelling around the world as a young man. While they were there, they were caught up in the New York City Marathon which coincided with their family trip. David even took a photo of himself at the finish line as a joke at his condition and illness. And a seed was planted…
When David and his family got back to Ireland, however, his condition had considerably worsened. Transplant was the only option. But David had to bring down his weight before he could be put on the lung transplant list.
Climbing a Mountain: the Double Lung Transplant
“I saw recovery from IPF like a giant mountain. And getting my BMI down to the level required for the transplant lift was like getting to the bottom of the mountain. I went and saw a dietician and downloaded the MyFitnessPal App. I was deadly serious about getting better. I dropped 2 and 1/2 stone in two months over the Christmas period. I didn’t fast or go on a liquid diet. I just ate the recommended portions, like a orange-sized amount of rice, and went for a walk after to give my brain the time to realize I was no longer hungry.
Of course, I was pure stubborn at the start and didn’t want to believe you could be full after a rice portion the size of an orange. But I then got equally as determined about eating right and not eating too much.”
David forced himself to live and eat healthier and was soon on the transplant list. He got ‘the call’ very quickly after but unfortunately the operation wasn’t viable because the organs had deteriorated too quickly. The next time he got called up to the Mater however, he had good luck. He flew through the tests and had his double lung transplant surgery at 5am on a Friday morning.
“The first time I got called, I wasn’t ready for it. I was in the ambulance going up and I hadn’t had the chance to properly say goodbye or drink in the countryside around my house, which I love. The second time, I was a little more prepared in the sense I had a bag packed. But it’s very difficult to be mentally ready for a transplant operation. I remember my wife came down as far as outside the theatre with me and us saying a goodbye there…
Thank god, I woke up a few days later restored thanks to my donor and my donor family. I remember Ireland were playing England in rugby and the match was on the telly. The sounds of the match and the 6 nations were what I woke up to first.
For the first few days, I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up again, thinking back to my family’s history and my brothers and sister.
So to help me nod off, one of the nurses got me to look at the clock on the wall and count the time passing with the second hand. While I was doing that, I tried breathing in, holding my breath for a few seconds and then breathing out again. When I realised, I could hold my breath – something I’d obviously had great struggles doing with lungs damaged by IPF – I knew then that I was over the crest of the mountain. I knew that I was going to live.”
“To my surgeon Dr. Hossain Javapour, it is truly amazing how two completely different life paths can meet to create something so precious and life saving. You are a legend to me. I hope to show people that I am an example of your hard work and dedication you provide on a daily basis. I also cannot say enough about the all the staff who helped me, with my build up to and recovery after my transplant, consultants, doctors, nurses, physio and anyone else who helped me along the way, I will never be able to thank you enough or put into words my gratitude I have for all your hard work and the amazing skills you provided to me.”
Operation Transformation: Becoming a New York Marathon Runner
While David was recovering in the Mater, one of his cousins paid him a visit and planted a seed that would see David become a marathon distance runner.
“When I was in hospital, one of my cousins snuck in after normal visiting hours. The ward was incredibly busy. He couldn’t believe the work that the nurses and doctors were doing and what they’d done with me, as I’d gone from being on the brink of death to walking around. He said he was going to do the Dublin marathon to fundraise for them.
So then I got thinking that if he could do that, then why couldn’t I do something. And I remembered the New York marathon during that family trip to America with my children and wife, at a time when I didn’t know how things were going to turn out. I decided I wanted to run the marathon in New York then.”
David was released from hospital and went home to Kingscourt, Co. Cavan with a new sense of purpose. Word spread in his local community that he wanted to do the New York marathon, after the major operation of a double lung transplant. His family were immediately on board; his mother and his wife decided they were going to do the full distance with him. But soon others like the local pharmacist, David McNally, and fitness instructor, Andy O’Brien, were asking to join him too.
So David started training regularly for the marathon on Tuesdays and Thursdays at his local football field, and had a group of 110 people training with him at times.
The team that was actually going to New York was made up of 14 people, including his wife, mother, his cousins, his pharmacist, fitness instructor and medical professionals from the Mater Hospital like cardiothoracic surgeon, Professor David Healy.
“There were 3 challenges to overcome before taking on the New York City Marathon to build up enough strength to finish it. The first was the 5 mile run in Clontarf which I completed in under an hour, the second was a 10km race in March 2017 and the third was the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in August.
We did a lot of fundraising along the way. We’d made the decision to cover our own flights and accommodation so everything we raised went towards charity. We’d have a bucket on training days and everyone would put €2 in so we raised a bit of money from that, but we also did a golf classic and bucket collections at county games.”
David ended up raising €60,700 in total which was an incredible achievement. The amount of funds raised, the number of people who trained with him and the size of the New York City Marathon team shows how quick people are to support someone taking on a huge, personal challenge for charity.
By the end of summer 2017, David had already broken a number of records including being the first double lung transplant patient to have completed the Rock and Roll Half Marathon. He had spent a year training in Cavan, completed his 3 stepping stone races and was as ready as he’d ever be for New York City in November.
The Big Day: Running the New York City Marathon
“We went to New York on a Friday. Straight away, I was into bad marathon preparation as I’d to rush out to Manhattan. I’d been nominated to represent Ireland at the Flag of Nations ceremony in Central Park. And what that meant was holding up the tricolour and waving it around for five or six hours. It wore heavy on the legs and the shoulder but it was great publicity for a good cause so I did it.
On Saturday, we picked up our running bibs and numbers and ate a ton of pasta at the Olive Garden to carb-load.
D-Day was Sunday. It got off to a rocky start with one of our buses getting lost around New Jersey before getting to the start line, and our team getting separated from each other. Thank god, my local pharmacist David McNally and my fitness instructor Andy O’Brien stayed with me. I ran the whole race with them.
I hit ‘the wall’ early at 7 or 8 miles instead of 20 miles, where you’re meant to hit it. I was feeling sick. Now David McNally had a backpack with half the chemist’s in it. But he decided the best thing to settle me was a cup of tea. I couldn’t believe he was going on about tea while we were in a marathon in the middle of hundreds of runners in Brooklyn.
But he hopped the ropes and then came back with this tepid cup of herbal water. So I got it into me and it kept me going. Mile by mile, I kept going.
I had a time in my head going into the New York City Marathon, I wanted to do it in 6 hours and 4 minutes. That’s because it was 604 days since my double lung transplant when I was doing it. So I tried to keep going to the point I couldn’t feel my legs under me and my knees started locking.
I got me head down, powerwalking forward, like I was going up the fields looking for sheep. I kept a strong pace but eventually had to stop for a breather or I wouldn’t have finished the race at all. The wind was almost gone from my sails when David handed me three little notes from each of my children. It was enough to power me on to the last 2 miles of the marathon. Then I started thinking of all the donors and supporters and the hospital staff who’d helped save me. And I couldn’t stop then. I knew I had to finish strong for all these people.
So I gave it the last burst to the finish line. The crowd was amazing. Americans are boisterous and loud and can sometimes do your head in. But when you’re doing a marathon, you buy into it and they helped me cross that line strong.”
David finished with a time of 6:15:31 and broke the record marathon time for an Irish organ transplant recipient by a full 40 minutes. The full list of people who ran with him is as follows, David’s wife Katie, his mother Kathleen, cousins Denise Carolan, Margaret O’Rourke, Stephen Power, Michael Crosby, Enda Coyle and Katie Sexton, his fitness instructor Andy O’Brien, local pharmacist David McNally, cardiothoracic surgeon Professor Healy and friends David Watters and Sean Kieran.
Future Hopes: Taking a run at the Super Six
Almost straightaway after completing the New York City Marathon, David set himself a new, bigger goal. He wanted to become a Super Six finisher. The Super Six series requires participants to complete the New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo Marathons. The idea came when David met someone with the elusive Super Six medal at a charity awards ceremony in New York, where he received a standing ovation for overcoming a huge, personal challenge and fundraising a huge amount of money.
When asked what drives him to such lengths to fundraise, such that he’s already planning to break new records with a feat that no organ recipient patient has ever attempted, David is quite straightforward:
“People are very generous when you show them how much it will impact the lives of others, how it’s changed your life or the live of people you care about and what you’ve been through then to support it. People come up with €20s, €50s and €100s. They get something out of helping when they can see the impact of what helping does. I remember one of the first fundraisers I ever did after coming out of hospital was a cyclathon. I’d a spinning bike planted in front of SuperValu and I needed people to understand what I was doing by cycling non-stop on top of it.
So I set it up in such a way that the distance I had to cycle was equivalent to the route between the Circle of Life Garden in Salthill, Galway and the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Because the Circle of Life Garden is a place which commemorates the enduring legacy of organ donors and it’s a space for their families too.
So people could understand what I was doing then and why I was doing it then. I wasn’t just a headstrong Meath man on a bicycle then. It was almost intuitive that I was someone who’d benefited from the wonderful gift of an organ donation, that I was on that bike to recognise the gift that’d been given me.”
David looks set to continue fundraising by taking on huge challenges for the next few years. After he talked about his hopes for the Super Six series, he mentioned that he’d also been thinking of running the Great Wall of China! There’s not too many like him, but at the Mater Foundation we make an effort to collect stories from all our patients and every one of them has their own unique and moving story to tell.
Continue reading more about amazing people and their stories of recovery by clicking the link below…