Ironman races are grueling. Recovering from intensive brain surgery might be even harder. Candace Gantt is one of the few people who can actually compare the two from experience.
Gantt, 55, had just finished her first half Ironman in July 2005 when the accident happened. At the time she had been an avid runner, biker and swimmer. Her attraction to Ironman races was only natural, she believes.
“It was a progression I think,” Gantt said. “I first started competing in sprint triathlons and I was successful and I felt elated and enthusiastic about it. Then it kind of just evolved into the next stage. It’s kind of like a job where you’re always looking to improve and excel in what you do and what you love and what you have a passion for.”
Two weeks after finishing the half Ironman, she was riding her bike on a country road in nearby Chester County alongside a construction truck pulling a trailer. The truck moved out of the way to pass Gantt, but then swerved quickly back towards her when it saw an oncoming car. The trailer behind it fishtailed and swung out, hitting Gantt.
The impact launched her into a telephone pole, and her body rebounded off a fence and back on to the road.
Fortunately for Gantt, she was not biking alone. Her riding partner saw the accident and immediately called for an ambulance. When the first help arrived, she got another lucky break.
“There was a doctor on call, who arrived before the ambulance, and he was a neurologist, as luck would have it,” Gantt recalled. “He immediately identified it as a traumatic brain injury. So when the ambulance got there, he had them call for an airlift.”
Gantt was flown to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where doctors went to work on treating her life-threatening injuries. Along with severe brain trauma, Gantt had several cracked facial bones, a broken clavicle and a collapsed lung. The surgeons performed an emergency craniectomy — removing a part of her skull — to allow her brain to expand as it swelled up without causing more serious damage.
Doctors were unsure if she would live, and even then it was quite possible she would not be able to walk or talk again.
“I was in the hospital for three weeks,” Gantt recalled. The first two were spent in a coma.
Eventually she did wake up. But after leaving the hospital, her recovery was far from over. She spent a month in intensive physical therapy at Bryn Mawr learning how to walk and speak again.
Just five months after the accident, Gantt returned home again and could run and bike short distances. The doctors believed her incredible physical shape prior to the accident may have played a significant role in her remarkable recovery.
Within a year of the accident, Gantt began training for another half Ironman. When fully healthy, she runs 35 miles, bikes 120 miles and swims for four hours every week. In total, it takes up about 25 hours per week, more than a part-time job.
“Honestly the training is more difficult than the actual event,” Gantt said. “It is very labor-intensive and time-intensive.”
Beyond a revived triathlon commitment, Gantt and her husband, Russell, have dedicated themselves to advancing the field of brain trauma research. Through Penn’s Department of Neurosurgery, she was put in contact with Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair.
“She and her husband decided during the course of her recovery that they wanted to be very active participants in facilitating help for other people,” Smith said. “Her first step was to meet with me over dinner and just discuss her circumstance and what she can do to facilitate advancements for both the research and clinical side.”
Gantt and Smith agreed that raising awareness of brain trauma injuries by telling her story was one of the principal ways she could help the CBIR.
“I was fascinated by all the work they were doing once I understood it,” Gantt said. “I would take tours of the labs and meet with the doctors, and they asked me to come back several times to do symposiums.”
In addition to the many talks she has given, Gantt’s story has also been recounted in “Second Wind: The Resilience of Women,” an eBook compilation of 12 true stories about inspirational women who have overcome adversity.
Gantt completed her comeback in 2008, finishing her second half Ironman. But she wasn’t satisfied just yet. She continued her training and racing, even running in the 2011 Boston Marathon. There was still the full Ironman — a grueling and challenging race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — which she had yet to complete.
This October, seven years since the accident, Candace achieved her goal by completing her first full Ironman in North Carolina. Not settling on simply competing, Candace and her husband set up a fund to raise $10,000 for CBIR. For her, the event and the donation efforts were a massive success.
“I had a great experience, and they produced a fabulous event,” Gantt said. “The weather was great, I had lots of family support, I raised money for the Center for Brain Injury and Repair. So it was really a great time for me.”
Smith believes the money that Gantt is raising will go toward new research projects and opportunities, especially for Penn students.
“It is time to bring in more blood, more ideas, the next generation. I think her fundraising can really help us do that,” Smith said. “In my lab I have undergrads, graduate students and post-docs from Penn, and most other labs are just like that. So there is a large representation of the student body in this particular research at Penn.”
The research on the subject of traumatic brain injury is still in the early stages, and Smith believes it is an issue that should be, and will be, at the center of health debates in the near future as people like Candace raise awareness.
“It’s so strange that TBI has been around forever, since prehistory, and yet it has only recently been recognized as a major health issue,” Smith said. “People have to start developing awareness of this huge health issue.”
As for Candace’s future plans, she is unsure whether or not she has one more full Ironman in her but certainly hasn’t ruled out the idea just yet.
“I won’t say I’ll never do another one,” Candace said. “Never say never.”
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