From heart transplant to Hawke’s Bay marathon running race

Seven months ago Jack Church was fighting for his life after undergoing a heart transplant.

Now he is on a mission to complete a prestigious half marathon event.

The 26-year-old Royal New Zealand Navy fitness instructor will take on the 21.1km race in during the New Zealand Sotheby’s International Realty Hawke’s Bay Marathon event next Saturday.

Joining him along the route will be some of his naval colleagues and biggest supporters set to encourage him as he hopes to alternate running and jogging the distance.

“I’m 100 per cent going to have to walk some of it,” Church said.

“To be honest, I don’t even know if I’ll get to the whole 21km . . . it’s more just going down there with the boys because they’re all keen to go and so I said I’d come along and give it a go.

“They’ve said do it, and if you need to pull out that’s fine. I have a tactic to run a couple of kilometres then walk a couple, so I don’t blow out or anything.”

Church’s life-changing health ordeal began in February, 2021.

He was incredibly fit; through both his job as a PT instructor and being an active rugby and softball player.

But his fitness started waning early last year. Then in May he was admitted to hospital where a subsequent x-ray showed he had an enlarged heart.

The cause of the enlarged heart has not been determined.

But he was also diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy; a disease of the heart muscle which means ventricles can’t pump blood as well as a healthy heart.

“I was fortunate enough to not have the heart attack or something like that to put me into hospital,” Church said.

“We don’t actually know the cause yet, they’re still trying to figure that out but pretty much I just slowly declined in fitness and health.

“They did a genetic test on me and my family, which came back negative, so they ruled out genetics. Then they were looking at the Covid vaccine to see if that had an effect and they ruled that out too.”

Scarring was found on his heart, results of miniature heart attacks he previously suffered but, because of his fitness levels, had never realised he had had.

He was initially put on various medication, but due to the severity of heart damage was placed on the national heart transplant waitlist last August.

He underwent transplant surgery in October after a matching donor was found.

“I had a few rejections in the early stages,” Church said.

“That’s because I’m so young and my immune system was strong, it fights harder than a 60-year-old with a transplant. I didn’t actually feel the rejections, it wasn’t painful or anything it was just slowing my recovery, so they changed my meds.”

He spent two weeks in hospital post-transplant, followed by the beginning of a long month of physio and rehab.

His rugby days are over, and he has also been told that he can’t exercise to his previous intensity.

“After the transplant, it’s like getting to know your body, relearning your limits,” Church said. “I started at square one when I came out the hospital, struggling to lift 1kg dumbbells and learning to walk.

“Now, knowing where I was and trying to get back to there, it’s about knowing when to push it and when to ease off. I don’t play sport but other than that there haven’t been any major changes. It’s just a slower lifestyle I guess.”

If Church does complete next Saturday’s half marathon he certainly won’t be a front runner.

But, given what he has endured, even making it to the start line is a champion effort.

“I will feel relieved, and if I can do that then the possibilities now are endless,” he said.

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