Back from the dead and competing in triathlons   

Updated: November 12, 2008, 1:07 PM ET

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Brian Boyle remembers waking up and seeing the nun beside his bed. She was praying with her eyes closed, clutching a set of rosary beads. She was asking God not to take him away. He wondered if he'd already died and was in heaven. Then he saw her lips move again and the clock above her head on the wall, so he figured he was still alive.

He remembers waking up, unable to speak or move, watching his doctors huddled with his parents in the corner of the hospital room. They didn't know it, but he could hear them. He heard the words "vegetable" and "hospital for life." What future, he thought? What kind of life is that? Then he'd be gone again.

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Brian Boyle was in a coma for two months following his car accident.

He remembers the day he really woke up, two months after the coma began. He opened his eyes and saw tubes everywhere -- down his throat, in his chest, in his arms, on his neck. He couldn't move any part of his body, couldn't blink his eyelids. He couldn't ask why he was paralyzed or where his parents were. He only knew that he was in a hospital and that he was scared. So he focused on one thought: "Whatever happened must've been serious. How can I get out of this -- now?"

They say he died eight times, though it could have been 10. His parents say it depends on how you define death. Was it the time his tracheotomy filled with fluid and he turned blue, unable to breathe for several minutes before anyone noticed? Was it during the months he lay in a medically induced coma, his body convulsing whenever his parents spoke? Or was it later when, as a 5-foot-11, 230-pound athlete turned 130-pound skeleton, he sat in his wheelchair, staring at his immovable legs, willing death to come?

At times, his tale of survival sounds more improbable than possible. And for almost two years, that's how he felt.

Until the dream of an Ironman triathlon brought 23-year-old Brian Boyle back to life.

Brian grew up the only child of Joanne and Garth Boyle. Garth had six siblings and Joanne had four, so they planned for a big family. But when Garth was diagnosed with testicular cancer after Brian was born, they were told that their son would be their only child.

Always an athlete, Brian started competitive swimming in elementary school, which he later abandoned for basketball and track and field. As a high school freshman, Brian returned to swimming, even though the coaches grouped him with the 11- and 12-year-olds because they said that matched his skill. "I was so frustrated by that, so I practiced all the time," Brian says. A year later, he was a Maryland state champion in the 50 free, 100 butterfly and two relay teams. By his senior year, he was a nationally ranked discus thrower and had received a scholarship to St. Mary's College, a Division III school 20 minutes from his home in La Plata.

In the weeks following his high school graduation, Brian practiced at a local pool every night. He was in peak physical condition and he wasn't a partier -- never smoked, drank or did drugs. At 15, he'd gotten a tattoo of a lightning bolt because he'd read it was a symbol of victory in Greek mythology and felt it embodied his philosophy of never giving up. He'd grown his hair long, "surfer-style," because he liked the look of his shaggy blond locks and thought the girls might, too.

On the Fourth of July, 2004, he joined his parents at his father's company picnic.

It's the last evening he remembers.

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

The accident damaged all of Brian's major organs.

The country roads surrounding La Plata are winding, two-lane highways without sidewalks or streetlights. Brian was driving his 1994 Chevy Camaro at 6:40 p.m. on July 5th when he approached a stop sign at a four-way intersection. After stopping, he pressed the gas pedal to cross the intersection when, to his left, a dump truck sped toward him. Brian doesn't remember the impact but lawyers and investigators later estimated that the dump truck was going at least 60 mph, 30 mph over the speed limit. The driver had been in court two weeks prior for a speeding ticket, one of several on his record.

As the truck crashed into the Camaro, Brian was thrown across the car. The impact knocked his heart across his chest, broke his ribs and crushed his lungs. His legs crumpled beneath the steering wheel while his upper body was pinned to the passenger's side door. His seat belt broke his left clavicle and his pelvis was completely shattered. Every major organ in his body was damaged. Burn marks covered his skin.

Using the Jaws of Life, EMT technicians had less than 15 minutes to extract Brian from the car before he'd die from blood loss. As the medical helicopter arrived to airlift Brian to Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, EMTs radioed him in as an Alpha Stat patient, the tag given to patients who are expected dead upon arrival. "That 10-minute ride to PG County was literally the ride of my life," Brian says.

Joanne, a government contractor for the Navy, arrived home that evening with a message to call Prince George's immediately. The receptionist wouldn't tell her what had happened, but urged her to get there as soon as possible "about her son." Joanne called Garth, who was working at a construction site near St. Mary's. When she told him where their son was, he fell to his knees, screaming.

At the hospital, Brian was in the shock trauma unit. He'd lost over 60 percent of his blood and a team of doctors put him into a medically induced coma, worried he would die from the pain and trauma of the ordeal. "He was extremely critical, had already coded several times and was bleeding massively," says Dr. James Catevenis, the director of critical care and medicine at PG Hospital. "We didn't think his prognosis was very good."

After cutting open Brian's chest twice in 24 hours, they simply left it open for further procedures. They didn't re-set his broken bones because the main organs were the first priority.

His parents stayed for 48 hours without food or rest. Late into the night, the head nurse came into the waiting room. "She wasn't trying to get personal with us, just asking questions," Garth says. "But at the end, she asked us, 'Is Brian your only child?' When [Joanne] said yes, I looked over and the nurse was tearing up. That's when I knew we were in trouble."

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Brian's chest was cut open twice in 24 hours and he had multiple cardiac arrests.

For the next two months, Joanne and Garth followed the same routine: wake up, drive an hour to the hospital for morning visiting hours, wait in the lobby until afternoon visiting hours, wait again for evening visiting hours, and then drive home. If they watched TV, there was one option: "Jolly Old England," a British comedy, because it was a show that Brian disliked. They couldn't cook dinner because it reminded them of the foods their son loved, so they didn't eat much. Instead, they waited for the phone to ring. "In the evening, they'd call a final time to give us the latest report," Garth says. If the call was bad news, Garth would go outside and mow the lawn, walking back and forth down the rows until the sun came up.

Joanne maintained a Web site with daily updates on Brian's progress. On the ride home from the hospital each night, they talked about what to post. Though they discussed every detail, they always avoided the one question they were afraid to ask each other: "Do you think Brian is going to die?"

Garth talked to his comatose son every day and massaged his feet. They hounded doctors for updates, signed forms for more surgeries, and waited. On some days, doctors predicted Brian would be out in a few months. On other days, they asked if the Boyles had allowed family and friends to say their goodbyes.

"That was a stormy two-month course, but his parents never lost faith no matter how bad the news was," Dr. Catevenis says. "It was amazing to watch how they could come every day and still be positive, still feel that he was going to make it."

After two months, Brian woke up to find himself paralyzed, strapped to a rotating bed to keep infection from setting in. IVs pumped his body with nutrients, but he continued to lose weight. He couldn't communicate to tell doctors that while his body was mangled, his mind was still intact.

And he still battled death. "There were many times when he had multiple cardiac arrests and we were doing chest compressions and giving him meds to try to restart his heart," Dr. Catevenis says. "When that happens, that's considered death."

Doctors and nurses kept telling him he'd broken a few bones and would be out soon. "But I stopped believing, because it turned into a few weeks and I wasn't leaving the hospital," Boyle says. "I was an athlete paralyzed in a hospital bed full of tubes. I couldn't imagine a worse situation."

A few weeks after waking up, he decided he'd had enough. "I started praying to God to end the suffering," Brian says. "I guess it was selfish, but I didn't want to live like that anymore." He wouldn't look at his parents that afternoon and his eyes glazed over. "Please," Garth pleaded with his son, sensing something was wrong. "Please don't give up." Begging turned to anger, with father yelling at son. "Your mother and I will not survive if you don't do this," Garth shouted. "You have to keep trying."

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Before the accident, Brian weighed 240 pounds. He left the hospital more than 100 pounds lighter.

"That's when I realized, I'm their life," Brian says. So he decided he'd try to smile, and focused all his energy on moving the muscles around his mouth. As soon as he tried, his body went into convulsions. Nurses and doctors rushed in to stabilize him. When he tried again, the same thing happened. Neurologists ordered a CAT scan, worried that brain damage was causing the seizures. When the tests came back clear, Brian kept trying until his father returned that evening. He focused on his father's face -- and managed a contorted version of his smile.

His next goal was to speak. With the help of a voice box, one morning, after his parents had left, a sound finally came out. And another. Dr. Catevenis called his parents into the room. Brian smiled and told his mom he loved her. The nurses and doctors broke down in tears.

Four and a half months, 14 serious operations, 36 blood transfusions, 13 plasma treatments and a massive amount of medication later, Brian was granted permission to leave the hospital for Kernan, an orthopedic rehabilitation center in Baltimore. He spent six days in Kernan, surrounded by depressed, sick patients, which made him more depressed. He saw his reflection in a mirror for the first time, and was horrified. He tried to walk with one therapist standing on one side and one on the other while Brian held two poles, terrified of falling since he had no muscle or fat to cushion him.

After a week, he went home. "It was like having a toddler all over again and re-learning everything," Joanne says. His parents moved his bedroom downstairs and slept on either side of him, listening to make sure he was breathing. "I thought once we got him home, we'd have the old Brian back," Garth says. "I didn't realize how weak he really was."

Watching his son struggle one afternoon, Garth stepped out on the porch and sat down, fighting to breathe. As Garth yelled for Joanne to call 911, Brian crawled out of his bed toward the sliding glass door to the porch. When the medics arrived, they rushed to Brian, assuming he was hurt. "No, it's my husband this time," Joanne told them. At the hospital, Garth was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed antidepressants.

A physical therapist came to the Boyles' house three times a week. "My body was so weak, and I literally had no muscles," Brian says. "When I tried to take a step, it felt like a thousand pins pushing into my entire body. The pain was excruciating -- worse than the accident itself."

But one day, he received an e-mail from Gary Hall Jr., the Olympic swimmer Brian had idolized since childhood. Hall had heard about Brian's ordeal through a friend. "Ride on over all obstacles and win the race," Hall wrote. "I look forward to meeting you one day --- maybe we'll go for a swim."

"That's what really motivated me to try swimming again," Brian says. So he set a new goal: to get back into the pool the new year, 2006. Sam Fleming, a friend and former swim-team rival, agreed to help. Once his doctors gave the OK, Brian and Sam returned to the same pool he'd worked out in before the accident. It was a week before Christmas -- his Christmas present from his doctors, Brian says.

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Brian says the rehab was more painful than the injuries from the accident.

"When I jumped in, I sank to the bottom because I'd forgotten how to stay afloat," Brian says. He struggled to the surface before starting a slow dog paddle. "I wasn't even trying to stroke the water, I just wanted to make it one lap," he says. It took almost seven minutes, but he swam the length of the pool. "He seemed so excited to be back in the pool," Fleming says. "At one point, doctors had told him he wouldn't even be able to walk, and yet here he is swimming."

By the spring of '06, Brian had begun riding a stationary bike and swimming regularly. He planned on beginning his freshman year at St. Mary's in the fall. He also revisited the three goals he'd held since middle school: be a state champion swimmer, swim on a collegiate team, and compete in the Ironman World Championships, something that had interested him since first seeing it on TV at 5 years old.

Though his lungs weren't strong enough to compete in every meet, Brian joined his St. Mary's teammates that fall and swam in several competitions. He sat out the spring 2007 season and became involved in bodybuilding. Studying for exams, he was reading the Ironman site. On a whim, he wrote to officials, describing his ordeal and his dream of competing in an Ironman triathlon, perhaps "five or 10 years down the road."

Peter Henning, the producer of NBC's Ironman telecast, called Brian later that week. "How would you like to compete in the Ironman World Championships as a media slot this year?" Henning asked. This was June -- the race was in October. Brian had never ridden a bike or run more than a few miles. Still, "How could I pass up that opportunity?" Brian says. So he promised he'd take the first step and ask his doctors for approval.

Once his doctors granted him medical clearance, Brian had four days until the Steelhead 70.3 half-Ironman in Michigan on Aug. 4th, which Ironman officials insisted he complete to prove he could handle the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. Brian didn't own a bike, so he called Cannondale and asked if he could borrow one. Cannondale mailed him a $2,000 racing bike, which Brian had assembled two days before the race. With no time to test the bike, he flew to Michigan.

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Brian finishes the Ironman in Hawaii last October.

As the race began, his parents went to a nearby beach, too nervous to watch. "I was more nervous that Brian would die out there than when he was in the hospital," Joanne says. Because he'd never ridden a racing bike, Brian didn't realize that his feet clipped into the pedals or how to hold the handlebars or shift gears. For 56 miles, he rode in one gear, never letting go of the handles. He had a Gatorade bottle strapped in but was too afraid to let go to take a drink. By the end of the bike leg, "I was seeing stars," Brian says. He didn't know how to stop the bike, so he crashed at the finish as cameras rolled and spectators watched. Severely dehydrated and on wobbly legs, Brian took off on the 13.1-mile run. Seven and a half hours later, he'd completed the half-Ironman, proof that he was eligible for Kona. "That was harder than anything I've ever done," Brian says. "Sometimes I look back and still can't believe I finished with no training."

He spent the next two and a half months prepping for Hawaii. He found a coach and spent eight to 10 hours a day running, biking and swimming. In early October, the family left for Hawaii.

As the early morning sun rose over the Hawaiian coastline, Brian reflected on his journey to reach the Ironman. The reflection also served as his race motivation. "I kept thinking of how far I'd come to get here," Brian says. By the start of the marathon, dark had set in, but Brian kept going. As he approached the finish line, he saw both of his parents in "Team Boyle" T-shirts. He held his arms out to both sides, grinning as the crowd cheered. "Twenty-one-year-old Brian Boyle is an Ironman!" the announcer roared, as Brian and his parents broke down in tears. Fourteen hours, 42 minutes and 25 seconds after starting, Brian had finished.

Now, almost a year later, Brian's goals have shifted. He's focusing on half-Ironmans and hopes to break five hours for the first time this weekend in Clearwater, Fla., at the World Half-Ironman Championships. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Brian attends classes (he's set to graduate in December of 2009, studying graphic design) and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and weekends, he trains. He rides his bike in the parking lot of a local school but runs his training legs on the highway. He's cut his half-marathon time in half, and has set a new goal of qualifying for Kona on his own, without a media slot. He's slimmed down to 180 pounds, his ideal competition weight, and is as healthy as he's ever been.

Brian Boyle

Courtesy of Boyle family

Brian continues to train while finishing up college.

Still, there are reminders. "Every time I'm in the car, I think about the accident," Joanne says. The back of the Boyles' pantry door is covered in ICU name-tag stickers, which they placed there every evening after the hospital visits. "I wake up, even now, and I'll feel like I'm paralyzed or in a coma," Brian says. "But then I move and I know I'm living again, and I'm so thankful." In April 2005, he got a second tattoo of the Greek lettering for "alpha" to remember his status heading to Prince George's. He chose Greek in honor of Dr. Catevenis, whom Brian says is one of the main reasons he's alive today.

Their family pet, Daisy the bulldog, was also a post-accident addition. "We needed something to keep our spirits up, and that was Daisy," Boyle says. On most evenings, the family sits together on the back porch after dinner, reflecting on their life now and Brian's goals for the next year. Doctors have told him that given the extreme trauma to his organs, he probably won't live past the age of 50. But for Brian, that's just another odd he's ready to defy.

"Growing up, he was always 'One more time, Dad, one more throw,' when we played ball in the yard," Garth says. "He wouldn't stop until I made him stop. He's still like that. Everything's 'one more time.' When I got the call that day, that's what I was thinking. They told me Brian was critical, he'd been in an accident, and I started screaming 'No, no,' falling on my knees. I was devastated. But I then started thinking, "One more time, Brian. Please. Just one more time."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor
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