New heart recipient Jack Church's favoured sport is athletics, particularly sprinting, 100m and 200m.
Two years ago Jack Church was in surgery receiving a new heart to keep him alive.
Next Saturday, he will line up with the New Zealand team at the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf, Germany, running 100m and 200m sprint races as well as competing in table tennis and wheelchair rugby.
“I am still new to the Invictus family, but I want to be able to tell my story and prove to people that just because I nearly died doesn’t mean that I’m out – ‘the body achieves what the mind believes’,” said Church, a New Zealand Navy leading physical training instructor.
Nelson-raised Church was originally a hydrographic survey operator in the navy, until becoming a physical training instructor in 2020.
However, by early 2021 the normally super-fit PT instructor was finding it harder to train.
“As the weeks went on I became more unfit, and it was increasingly difficult to breathe during exercise. I noticed I was having to take naps during the day and had limited energy. I wasn’t my energetic self at all,” he said.
When walking up a set of stairs became too taxing, Church took a week off training. But the break did not solve the fatigue, nor his trouble breathing.
“I felt like I was breathing through a straw. I could never get a full breath, and I had no energy. I was shallow breathing a lot of the time and I could never fully inhale.”
A series of tests revealed his heart had swelled to twice its normal size.
“When I was asleep my heart rate was 120 beats per minute which is triple what it normally would be when asleep. My heart was working overtime just to keep me alive.
“The doctor said, ‘you’re the unlucky one in a million’.”
In and out of hospital over several months, doctors eventually determined Church needed a heart transplant.
“When I found out that I had heart failure and needed a new heart, I was good to go. I knew that I would be able to train again after recovery, so I just wanted to get a new ticker right then and there.”
In late 2021, he got a phone call that saved his life. There was a heart waiting for him. A few hours later he was in surgery, “taking the old engine out and putting a new one in”.
“There was a flood of emotions after that.”
He received the heart of a 19-year-old man. Having been such an active person before the diagnosis, regaining his fitness in the two years since the transplant had been challenging.
“I had to start from square one, if not worse than that.
“I had to learn to walk again, and I struggled to lift a 2kg dumbbell. I am not a patient person so building my strength and fitness slowly was really difficult.
“I wasn’t allowed to return to CrossFit, a sport I love, for about nine months post-transplant.”
A year after receiving his heart, the donor’s mother messaged him on social media.
“It was so cool to know where the heart came from, and it was probably one of closure for not just me but the family, to know their family’s heart is still beating with me.”
He met the donor’s family.
“I was already pretty motivated to take advantage of the second chance of life that I had been given but after meeting them it was not just me doing this, it’s now the family along with me.”
Church had now reached a level of fitness to compete at the Invictus Games with 20 teammates against 550 competitors from 22 nations in 10 sporting disciplines.
“My motivation and inspiration from the games definitely comes from the family that donated me the heart.
“They’re definitely the number one motivation to be able to take the second chance and really give it my all.”