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From Deathbed to Ironman Triathlete - Brian Boyle's Inspiring Recovery

by Brian Boyle(more info)

listed in mind body, originally published in issue 149 - July 2008


Imagine a car accident where you are hit so hard that your heart is instantly ripped across your chest, bones shattering and snapping in an instant, lungs collapsing, losing consciousness and pints of blood, life forces diminishing, the unimaginable pain, the paralysis, the chemically-induced coma for two months, waking up in a room and not knowing where you are and how you arrived there, the feeling of being told that your life was over, and the indescribable agony of it all. Your doctor comes into your room everyday to check on your status and to let you know that you are one of the lucky ones. You don’t understand what they mean, and ironically the next moment a stretcher is rolled by your room with a person in a body bag on their way to the morgue and now you understand exactly what the doctor meant. You imagine all of this and you live your worst nightmare, realizing how merciful and unmerciful life can be, and you become the individual who was in this car accident – me.

I was in a coma and on life support for over two months
I was in a coma and on life support for over two months

A month after I graduated high school in 2004, I was coming home from swimming practice and was involved in a near fatal car accident with a dump truck. The impact of the crash violently ripped my heart across my chest, shattering my ribs/clavicle/pelvis, collapsing my lungs, damage to every single organ, and failure of my kidneys and liver, removal of spleen and gallbladder, losing 60% of my blood, severe nerve damage to my left shoulder, and in a coma where I was on life support for over two months at Prince George’s Hospital Centre in Cheverly, Maryland (MD).

I died eight times while I was in the intensive care unit, and even when I woke up from my coma, I couldn’t talk or communicate, so everyone assumed that I was a vegetable. The day that they knew that I would live was the day that I either left my room in a wheelchair or a body bag; I remember hearing the doctors tell my parents that they were going to need to start looking at nursing homes for me, because even if I came out of the coma, I was going to need 24-hour care the rest of my life. As far as the future, it didn’t exist. Walking was never going to happen again due to all the extreme injuries, and because of the shattered pelvis. Before the accident I had three goals: to go to college, swim on the team, and compete in an ironman triathlon one day. Just like my body, my dreams were shattered. Everyone kept saying, “Just be happy you’re alive Brian”, but I never gave up.

After spending two months in a coma, 14 operations, 36 blood transfusions, 13 plasma treatments later, I lost a total of 100 lbs and had to go to a rehabilitation centre in Baltimore. I had to learn how to talk, eat, shower, and live independently again. After that agonizing experience, I had to go to outpatient therapy in Waldorf, MD. After spending a few months in a wheelchair, I took baby steps to walk on my own. It was a miracle that I could walk again, but I wanted to prove the doctors wrong and not only walk, but run. After I accomplished that, I wanted to get back in the pool again. After a few lung tests, I was able to go in the pool a little bit each week. A year later I was one of the fastest swimmers in the conference of my collegiate swim team. Two years after that, I competed and completed the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

They said I was in God’s Hands because I was/am living proof that miracles happen to those who believe. My name is Brian Boyle, and this is my story.


I awake to the sound of screaming, crying, and the loss of all reality. I then come to realize that I am in a white room all by myself. I have only been asleep for a short while. I blink my eyes a couple times and wait for them to adjust to the blinding light shining all around me – nothing happens.

My heart is racing, and I am sweating profusely. I am completely numb all over, and I cannot move. I feel like I am spontaneously combusting, and I am waiting for my body to just burst into flames. I try to move my fingers, but they seem to be in some kind of restraint that covers my hands completely. I am so uncomfortable; the pain feels like a thousand needles stabbing me all over. I feel like sandpaper has scraped my skin off. My arms are tied down as well, but why? What is going on, and what am I doing here?

I am being wheeled into this cold room, with this big electronic machine in the middle. Am I going into that? I think to myself. The people that wheeled me in pick me up and flop me onto this cold table right in front of this gray man-made piece of terror. I hear this distorted voice from speakers that were coming from the machine? They told me to hold my breath. While I did this, I felt this warm sensation go through me. I felt like I was in this machine for an eternity. When the thing spat me back out, I threw up everywhere. I had vomit all over me, and the gown I was wearing. The woman in the room rushed to clean me up, and brought me a new gown. They got me out of there after that, and put me in another room. This room wasn’t too bad, and I actually felt quite comfortable for the moment at least.

My parents came in that afternoon for the second session of visiting hours for that day. They were happy to see me, and I was really happy to see them too. I was actually beginning to move a little more than I was before. I could shake my parent’s hands, and almost smile. I could barely wink, but I could wink.

My parents brought me a small blue ball to help build up the strength in my hands. I tried to work on it, but I became too tired after doing it after a few times that I had to stop. During the visiting hours when they would come in my room, they would find the blue ball and put it in my hands. I would squeeze it a couple times and then stop because I was just too weak to go about it anymore. There was progress being made, but it was going to take a very long time.

A few Doctors came in to see how I was doing, and they were very happy to see that I was looking better. One doctor who came in introduced himself as Dr Catevenis. This doctor was all smiles. He was telling me that I was a very sick boy, and all I could do was just stare at him with a smile. My parents were talking to me, and for once within the whole time that I was in the hospital I was coherent with everything that was taking place around me. What they did not know is that I was about to go downhill, yet again on my rollercoaster ride back to life.

Competing in the Iron Man Challenge
Competing in the Iron Man Challenge

Rollercoaster Ride Back to Life

The following day my parents came in to see me. During the visiting hours they could not believe what they saw. I was lying in bed and I could not follow any commands that were given to me. I just laid there with my eyes fixed on an object in the room. I had drool running down the side of my mouth and I was numb all over. I tried to move, and also everything else I could do to snap out of whatever was wrong with me. I was back in the zombie state that I had been in the previous weeks in the hospital. The image was absolutely appalling and the people who walked by my room looked away in horror when they saw me. With all the progress that I had made so far, it did not matter anymore because I was stepping back into the realm of the unconscious.

I was given some kind of medication the night before that put me in some kind of induced fog that acted somewhat like a painkiller that would fight the infection in my body. The effects that it was causing wouldn’t last but a few days. My parents stood next to my bed, waiting hopefully for a positive sign. I was not moving, and my eyes could not move in any direction. The next thing that happened still scares my parents even to this day when I talk about it with them. I was lying in bed, and then I started trembling violently. My arms and legs were flying and the nurses and doctors started to run into my room. Everyone tried to mollify the terrifying situation that was taking place, but the only way for it to actually stop was through me. The seizure had to take its course and I had no control over it at all. My parents tell me that the look of fear on my face was unbearable. Personally, it was probably one of the scariest things that had ever happened to me, because I simply could not control it. It was an ineffable experience that you just cannot imagine unless it happens to you.

Some were thinking I was having the violent seizures due to what they saw, and the fact that I had bitten my tongue (a notable sign that a person has had a seizure). Others believed it was my nerves and muscles coming back to life. Whatever it was, it was terrifying.

I would have these seizures three to five times a day, and each one was scarier than the first. Scarier is actually an understatement for explaining all that. It got to the point where I just wanted to give up and die. I know that sounds horrible, but that is how I began to feel. I could not talk, move, walk, communicate in any way possible, there was a machine breathing for me, having seizures several times a day, and I was in pure agony all over. This was my life at the present, between the state of helpless and hopeless, and it was going to be the same in the future. I don’t talk about this too often, but I was actually starting to pray and beg God to take me away. I was on my last resort, and I was ready to face death – again, but this time for good. The eternal darkness of death was taking over my life, consuming my body and soul.

A few days passed and I was knocking on death’s door waiting for an answer. My parents, nurses, doctors, physical therapists were trying to communicate to me, and asking me to give them a sign that I was improving. I could not tell them anything because I was chemically paralyzed.

It must have been a week before I realized what had to be done. Seven days is a very long time especially when you are in a bed for the whole day and cannot move. The only thing you can do is wait. Wait for what though? I was never going to get out of here alive. I was going to spend the rest of my days in a hospital. Or was I?

It was not until my parents came in one day, and my dad began raising his voice telling me that I had to work hard or I was not going to come out of there alive. He was using a few bad words in there, and that is when I knew how serious he was. He had been so positive before, and now I could see the seriousness in his voice. I could see fire in his eyes, and I realized that he did not want to see his baby boy, his only child, die right before his eyes. This was tough love at its last resort. This was the moment that I consigned myself that I was going to live, because I realized that if I didn’t make it, my parents wouldn’t either; the pain that I was experiencing was excruciating, but the suffering my parents were going through was indescribable. It was then that I snapped out of the slum that I was in. This moment bolstered the motivation that I needed in order to come back to life. My mom was standing by the entrance to the room, as she would do when she would get scared. The realization that my dad had thought that I would not actually survive it all started to hit her, and she knew too that if I did not start to fight, then I would have led myself to my own demise. It was my choice whether to begin the challenge or not, and I decided that it was going to take everything I had left. This moment was destined to culminate into a revelation. I thought about being in that hospital room another day; the thought that I would never be able to speak again, to enjoy life for what it was worth. I was not going to let this destroy me. Death was not going to take me over, and it was not going to go away without a fight. A fight it was and still is. This was to be the fight of my life.

When my parents left after the visiting hours, I started to get the muscles in my face working. I did this because the next time my parents came in, I wanted to give them a smile; something they had not seen since I was in the accident. I started to squeeze the blue ball to get the muscles working in my right arm, and then to get the muscles working in my left arm I would squeeze the mitten that was covering my left hand. As soon as I started the exercises, my body went into convulsions over and over again. They would keep happening because the nerves in my body were coming back to life. This was actually a really good sign, but at that moment I was pretty frightened as it was a scary experience. All I remember is the nurses running around in and out of my room trying to get the neurosurgeon to come see what was happening to me. The neurosurgeon witnessed the seizures and wanted to run a few tests to see what was really going on and make sure I was okay. Throughout this time I was still trying to get my muscles in my face working so I could smile for my parents. After finishing all the routine tests and procedures, my parents came back and saw an almost complete smile on my face, and that was the moment that they knew their boy was back and here to stay.

Looking Back

During the day, I will have these visions that will just hit me. I will be thinking about something and for whatever reason it will lead to being in that coma or laying in my deathbed. It always gives me this sinking feeling in my stomach, but these memories are a symbol of my inspiration and my determination in life. These memories have built my mindset to overcome.

I am trying to make up for the two months I lost in coma. Due to the internal damage, one doctor said I would only live to 50, but I put the same weight on that as when they said I would never walk or swim again. That sinking feeling will always be there, but I try to focus on the positive things in life because I believe if you have a positive attitude, you have everything.

The finish of the Iron Man race
The finish of the Iron Man race


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About Brian Boyle

Brian Boyle, 21, of Welcome, MD, has made a journey to the doors of death and back. After he was hit three years ago by a dump truck and almost killed, doctors told him he would never walk again. But he not only learned to walk, he learned to run, bike and swim, and crossed the finish line at the 2007 Ford Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, just three years after leaving the Intensive Care Unit of Prince George’s Hospital Centre. His journey of courage and determination has touched the hearts of many, and his story and the message it carries has been celebrated around the world. Brian, a spokesman for the American Red Cross and the hospital that brought him back to life, is a collegiate swimmer and student at St Mary’s College of Maryland. He is also a part-time personal trainer, swim coach, and motivational speaker. Brian Boyle may be contacted via ;

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