Just one month after graduating from J. McDonough High School in Maryland, Brian Boyle became the victim of a horrific car crash that would change his life forever. With his Camaro demolished, Brian was pried from the wreckage and air-lifted to a shock-trauma hospital clinging to life. In his memoir, “Iron Heart,” Brian tells the story of his miraculous revival and how he overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. An excerpt.
Chapter one: Waking up
I awake to regular beeping sounds. I’m alone in a white room and looking straight up at the ceiling. Bright lights shine all around me. My heart is beating fast. I try to raise my arms, then legs, but I can’t move them. My head won’t budge either. I can’t blink or wiggle my fingers.
So what’s making those pings and blips? It sounds like a machine, perhaps several. But what are they doing? One machine creates a small burst of air that gently caresses my face. Its slight breeze does not cool my hot skin. I feel beads of sweat pooling on my forehead. When the perspiration rolls down my cheeks and reaches my chapped lips, it soothes them because they are unbelievably dry. My throat is sore and irritated.
A figure dressed in all black appears. Could this be Death? I then notice a small white collar around his neck. Death looks like a priest. Do I know this man? Even so, I can’t recognize him because his face remains a blur. Suddenly, my mind swells with a screaming sound. It’s a loud, almost deafening noise, as if the priest is yelling in my ear. The sound vibrations are pounding inside my skull, like I’m standing in front of giant speakers at a rock concert. Then the noise somehow turns into actual words spoken in a slow, distorted tone. I strain to make sense of his words: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ... ” Why is he giving me the last rites? I try to shut down my brain so his words won’t affect me. I want him to stop or go away. The room goes dark.
I’m awake. The priest is gone. Everything in my body feels numb. I want to close my eyes, but they won’t move or shut. I feel tears welling up. It’s like I’m underwater looking up at the surface. With this sensation, a vivid memory arises. I’m suddenly back at the outdoor pool where I used to swim with my younger cousins Matt and Hayley.
“Hey, Matt, watch this!” It has just started to rain and I dive into the water. Through my swim goggles I peer upward at the gray sky, trying to see anything above the water past the reflection and through the many raindrops colliding with the surface. I feel weightless and at peace underwater.
But I’m not in a pool right now. My attention returns to my burning eyes. They feel like they’ve been open for hours, maybe even days. Is that even possible? Wouldn’t they dry out at some point? This thought makes me nauseous; I want to vomit, but that urge is overwhelmed by something even more powerful. My left arm feels like it’s on fire. The pain is excruciating. Somebody throw water on me. Please! I’m begging you!
No one comes because I can’t speak. So I suffer in isolation and maddening silence. My mind goes blank. I can’t remember anything, not even my name. Somehow, without urgent prompting, I remember: Yes, my name is Brian. Brian Boyle. Am I dead? But if I were dead, I wouldn’t be able to have these thoughts because dead people can’t think, right? But I don’t feel normal or alive either. Something is terribly wrong.
Maybe this is just a bad dream. So let’s try something to wake up. I can bite my tongue. Bite. Bite and wake up. But I can’t bite my tongue because I can’t even feel it. Where is it? It has to be in my mouth somewhere. I try again. If I had a tongue in this nightmare it would probably have been bitten off by now. I bite harder. Nothing.
My heart starts beating faster. Its thumping rhythm rises above the eerie silence that’s filled my mind. But why is it beating in the center of my chest, which isn’t where the heart is located? And something heavy must be sitting on my chest because it’s crushing me. The pressure increases. I want to shout, “Get this thing off me, I can’t breathe,” but I can’t make a sound. My heart feels like it’s going to explode.
An alarm starts beeping loudly. I see red lights flashing. This is real; it’s not happening in a dream.
I hear footsteps. Several. Now I feel many hands on me. Grabbing my feet, arms, head. The hands pick me up, and I’m placed on a table with wheels. Why? What are you doing? And where are you taking me? Blurry shadows of people cluster around me. Voices are talking loud and fast: something about my heart and emergency surgery. Does this mean that I’m in a hospital? And what’s wrong with my heart? Oh man, this can’t be good. Mom, Dad, where are you? I need you.
I’m being pushed down all these different hallways. The ceiling looks the same everywhere — large white rectangular sheets of tile broken up by fluorescent lights with clear plastic covers.
The gurney is moving quickly, with several people running alongside. They’re also dragging the beeping machines. A large man looms over me. Underneath his white lab coat, he’s wearing a light blue button-up shirt. There’s a ballpoint pen and two red markers in his front pocket. He’s wearing an identification card connected to a lanyard. I struggle to read the name: Dr. James Catevenis, ICU Director, Prince George’s Hospital Center.
ICU. That’s ... Intensive Care Unit! This has gone from bad to worse. Only people who are critically injured or near death find themselves in Intensive Care.
The moving bed slams into a set of folding doors that swing open. I’m being wheeled into a partially lit room. It’s quiet here. Voices echo off the aqua-green tile walls. The bed comes to a complete stop and many hands surround me again, lifting my body onto a cold, hard surface.
People huddle near me. Everyone is wearing light blue surgical wardrobes and white latex gloves. A wide overhead light flicks on; it’s bright as the sun. Someone squirts brownish liquid on my chest and rubs it in, and another person places a clear plastic mask over my nose and mouth. A cool, scentless breeze fills the mask.
I stare up at one of the doctors who stands to my left. He must be the head surgeon because he’s directing everyone. He says something about fluid building up around my heart. I watch his hands hover near my chest. He’s holding a shiny object, which looks sharp, like a scalpel. The overhead light grows brighter. Within seconds, it swallows me in an even brighter flash. The last thing I hear before losing consciousness is the surgeon: “Let’s hope the third time is the charm.”
Excerpted from "Iron Heart" by Brian Boyle. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Skyhorse Publishing.