Every athlete has their own journey to the start line of an IRONMAN but there are very few who have endured so much and triumphed so graciously, as Brisbane’s Kate Phillips. When Kate makes her IRONMAN debut at the Cairns Airport IRONMAN Cairns Asia Pacific Championship (10 June) she will not only tick off an item from her impressive bucket list but will prove without doubt that “Anything is Possible”.
Kate describes herself as a sporty and active person trapped in a body that simply didn’t want to play ball, in fact, it really didn’t want her to play anything. It wasn’t until her heart and lung transplant in 2013, at the age of 27, that a whole new world was unlocked for her. Now five years after the intense emotion of a miraculous and traumatic operation, Kate is about live out yet another one of her dreams.
Kate’s journey of medical intervention began early on. Born with congenital heart disease, at 10 months she had open-heart surgery to correct the hole in her heart but miraculously she had a relatively normal, although monitored childhood. It wasn’t until her teenage years that she really started to get sick and the deterioration of her heart started to take its toll.
“Throughout my childhood, I was very fortunate to play as a normal kid but I always had restrictions. I could never really run more than 200m at a time without passing out. So I could never do school cross country or anything like that. I played soccer and stuff and loved it but I was frequently subbed off. I loved sport but I wasn’t necessarily great at it and couldn’t do it very long. ‘”When I hit 13 that things started to deteriorate and a glandular virus at 16 further weakened the heart muscles, so pulmonary hypertension and congenital heart disease just started to regress.”
At 23, Kate presented to the hospital with a pulmonary crisis. Overloaded with fluid, her lips were blue and she struggled to walk. Specialists immediately started her on daily drug therapy but that was not a cure and as it would play out was only postponing the inevitable. At the outpatient appointment, some months later, Kate’s already precarious world, really got tipped upside down, when she went into cardiac arrest during a ‘six-minute walk test’.
“It was in front of my mum and a lot of medical people. I was lucky to be in the hospital when it happened.”
Kate managed to stay away from surgery for another three years but eventually, she exhausted all medical possibilities. Transplantation was her only option and she was placed on the national emergency register for a heart and double lung transplant.
“Having the heart and lung combo, a rare combo, kind of freaked me out as well. My doctor had only done one before me, so I was thinking I hope he has read all the textbooks. I was terrified but more for my family because at that stage it is just out of everyone’s control and you just worry more for them. There was no other option, so it was the only time I have ever been excited about seeing the surgery doors.”
“I would love to say that it was like the news about people who wake up and all of a sudden they are ‘Oh my god, I can breathe’. It is nothing like that. I was incredibly sick and I was very fortunate to be on the transplant list when I was. The process is quite rigorous. You have to be seen by almost everybody in the hospital, you have to have psychological testing, your family have to be seen by the psychologist and there is all this stuff to ensure you are the very best fit so donor organs aren’t going to waste. You are in hospital for a week and you are screened and tested for everything.”
“Once I got are through all that and finally listed I immediately went downhill and into heart failure. I wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital until organs came available, so during that period I lost a lot of muscle and everything I had left was really depleted during my time in the ICU. Which meant I was going into the transplant a bit weaker and my recovery was a bit slower than others.”
A month after the transplant Kate was finally sent home, her recovery started to accelerate and she started to hatch realities that had previously only been dreams.
“I forced myself, every day, to go for walks around the block. I was so excited to be wearing joggers and be outside walking because I had never really had the need for them before. Every day I would be challenging myself up hills and every day I was getting stronger. Before I would avoid them or make excuses because I simply couldn’t get up them and be able to walk and talk at the same time was amazing”
“There were a lot of little things too, things other people take for granted, like laying flat in bed. I didn’t realise people could lay in bed without tonnes of pillows to prop themselves up at night. That full lung full of air is just amazing and I had never realized how amazing it is,” she recalled.
Kate had been waiting all her life to be fit and strong and eventually, her impatience got the better of her.
“About a month after I got home, it was a beautiful day and I thought stuff it I am just going to run. I just started running and it was such a surreal experience because I had always dreamed of running and not getting puffed. It was so weird, it was like I wasn’t short of breath. I looked like a duck because I had no muscles in my legs but I was running and I was so excited. It was such a great moment. Once I was able to, I really hit the ground running.”
Kate had always been a swim, ride, run tragic, with her family, friends and her husband at the time all into triathlon and despite being permanently “subbed off” due to her heart and lung condition, she still yearned for the opportunity to be the same as everyone else.
“I was really inspired by all that, sitting on the sidelines thinking ‘One day I definitely have to do that’. I was just itching to get out there and be a part of it. It is such a great thing and I don’t think people realise how much community support there is in triathlon until they are a part of it. It is so exciting, an athletics day for adults and I kind of caught that bug.”
Two months after the transplant Kate walked the 5km Bridge to Brisbane. Twelve months later she did the bike leg in her team with her brother at Noosa Triathlon and the following year, she did her first sprint triathlon at Raby Bay, backing up a month later with her full Noosa debut.
“I had always targeted Noosa because I had watched that race so many times and it felt like such a local race to me having grown up on the Sunshine Coast. There is something so special about the Noosa Tri and I just lost it at the finish line. Even running into the finish chute I had tears in my eyes, I was so overwhelmed. Even now, just thinking about it I tear up.”
“It sounds so stupid but as soon as I got the transplant I remember lying in hospital waiting to ask the doctors whether I could one day do the Noosa Triathlon. To finally have done it, it was so amazing and to have my family on the sidelines cheering me on, rather than me cheering them was amazing. I will never forget that.”
Kate took another giant step in 2016 completing IRONMAN 70.3 Cairns and with that under her belt she is now in full preparation for Cairns Airport IRONMAN Cairns Asia-Pacific Championship. A challenge that is taxing her physically and emotionally but one she is determined to conquer.
“Talking to my brother recently telling him how I am having so many self-doubts about the race. I hate that because I have always been so positive but really we should look at it as how much of a privilege it is stressed and anxious about trying to get through an IRONMAN, rather than waiting for donor organs. It really puts life into perspective when you look at it like that. I am so lucky to be freaking out about this rather than waiting for a second chance.”
“I have been to Cairns before so that is why I chose to go back and do the full IRONMAN there. I like that I have seen the course before and I really enjoyed my time up there. I love the looped run course around town at the end. I am really looking forward to going back there and getting it done,” she said.