Soldier gets a second life
August 18, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO (Army News Service, Aug. 18, 2008) -- In the 2004 movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Lance Armstrong makes a cameo appearance and gives Peter La Fleur, played by actor Vince Vaughn, an indirect motivational speech.
Before Armstrong's intervention, La Fleur was suffering some major setbacks and planning on quitting his dodge ball team. Armstrong runs into La Fleur when he is at an all time low and just walked away from his dodge ball team. Armstrong says he wanted to quit when he was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer all at the same time. Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France five times and credits his progress to the love and support of friends and family.
Sgt. 1st Class John Fairbanks, an accessions career counselor for the Army Reserve in Omaha, Nebraska, is a competitive cyclist like Armstrong. Fairbanks has never had cancer but was attacked in April 2005 by what the medical community calls the "Widow Maker" heart attack. This type of heart attack occurs when a critical artery that feeds blood to the heart becomes blocked.
Fairbanks said the doctors couldn't explain why he had this severe of a heart attack. He doesn't have a family history of heart disease, had good cholesterol and had a healthy heart rate at the time of his heart attack.
"I had a physical with the Army four days before I had my heart attack. The doctor said I wish I was in as good a shape as you. Maybe that was bad luck and maybe he shouldn't have said that," said Fairbanks in a joking manner.
Fairbanks didn't have an inspiring Armstrong cameo in his life when he was in congestive heart failure. He didn't need it.
This health problem for Fairbanks was like a hill with an extreme incline when biking. He was determined to take the hill, and being a Soldier that has the warrior ethos mentally engrained, Fairbanks wasn't going to accept defeat or quit. He said he wasn't going to give up on himself.
The prognosis for Fairbanks was he needed a heart transplant. On August 5th, 2005, Fairbanks received a heart from a 19-year-old from Montana and this is when, as Fairbanks emphasizes, his second life began.
Fairbanks overcame his health adversity to have another problem or steep incline to pedal hard to overcome. At 36, the Army wanted him to retire and go before a Physical Evaluation Board to see if he was fit for duty. The Army deemed him non-deployable because of the medication he was taking to prevent his body from rejecting his new heart.
"I love being a Soldier. As a senior NCO (Noncommissioned Officer), I love working with troops. I love mentoring younger people," said Fairbanks.
Fairbanks appealed the PEB retirement decision, but was later told to report to Fort Riley for retirement. At Fort Riley, Fairbanks was expecting the paperwork transition from Soldier to civilian. Instead of leaving the Army for good and to his surprise, they found he had been categorized fit for duty status.
"It was kind of a surreal experience. So I guess when I finally do retire, it will be my second time retiring.
Fairbanks hasn't gone on to cycle in the Tour de France. Instead he's raising donor awareness on his own time and money by escaping from Alcatraz.
In June, Fairbanks participated in the 2008 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Fairbanks was one of twelve transplant recipients and World Transplant relay team members representing the Bill Wohl Foundation for transplant and donor awareness. The team members also wear green wrist bands inscribed with "Donate Life" to bring attention to donor awareness.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, the number of people needing a life-saving transplant continues to rise with an inadequate amount of donors to cover the demand. Each month, approximately 300 new candidates, needing a transplant, are added to the waiting list.
Fairbanks, on World Transplant Team 1, completed 18 miles under an hour and ten minutes. Team member Steve Deakin, from Chesire England, started the first part of the relay with a 1.5 mile swim in the approximately 55 degree, shark infested waters of the San Francisco Bay. Deakin, a kidney recipient and an amputatee of both feet due to medical complications, would swim and then run a mile to reduce any chance of hypothermia. John Fisher, a heart recipient from London England, would conclude the triathlon with an 8-mile run through San Francisco.
Before Fairbanks could take to the streets of San Francisco with his bike, Deakin would have to navigate a sudden obstacle before the relay tag off.
"Steve is a great guy. Someone hid his (prosthetic) feet from him. He had a little difficulty doing the run," said Fairbanks. He added all the bags looked the same and someone moved the bag with Deakin's prosthetic feet in them on accident.
Fairbanks makes lots of cameos in Soldiers' lives. While he doesn't pour his heart out to every Soldier about his experience, when Soldiers want to quit, Fairbanks will share his ordeal to motivate Soldiers to overcome their own adversity.
A counseling session with Fairbanks could almost be visualized as Armstrong's was in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.
I had a heart attack once. My heart couldn't pump enough blood to my other organs. I was in heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure and so on . . . all at the same time. My determination not to quit and with love and support of friends and family, I conquered my problems.
"If I can over come this, you can overcome anything," Fairbanks said.