Donate for Life Month: Bob Garbark
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bob Garbark to hear his story, not really sure what to expect. Bob currently works at Premier Health and Fitness Center and was the recipient of a heart transplant in 2014. After chatting for an hour, he had brought me to tears. The writers of Grey’s Anatomy have nothing on Bob. This is a man who has literally witnessed, with his own two eyes, a heart beating on the inside of his open chest. Here is Bob’s truly phenomenal story of kicking life’s curveballs square in the face.
Imagine a 14 year old boy trying to navigate the maze that is being a teenager starting high school in 1984. This boy loves playing sports, lifting weights, and having fun with his buddies. One day, during football practice, he does a shoulder press and notices a huge mass bulging from his neck, to the amusement of his entire team. This mass turns out to be the first sign of his already stage 4 non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, which exists not only in his neck, but also his chest, armpit, and groin. This boy is Bob Garbark, and his adolescent experience with cancer was just the beginning.
Following this discovery, Bob went through over 60 treatments of radiation within 4 to 6 months. While in remission a few months later, Bob found another mass, which his doctors dismissed as scar tissue. Fortunately, he was persistent in his concern about the mass and his doctors agreed to remove it for peace of mind. In doing so, they discovered that it was, in fact, cancerous. The second round of treatment consisted of radiation as well as chemotherapy. Through both rounds of treatment, Bob lost 65 lbs and missed so much school that he had to repeat the year.
As part of the chemotherapy, Bob was given different drugs. One of these drugs gave him an intense burning sensation through his body which he describes as the worst physical pain he has experienced. After the chemotherapy, Bob was completely cancer free and has been since. Unfortunately, cancer was not his only adversary. At the time, Bob was unaware that the particularly painful drug could cause heart problems later in life, or that he would soon be living with a pronounced heart murmur.
Through his 20s and most of his 30s, Bob lived a pretty normal life. He worked as a sheriff with homeland security. He married, had children, and did his best to put his early struggles with his health behind him. Then, in his late 30s, he started noticing extreme fatigue. Things that would normally be easy for him made him exhausted. One day in 2010, while mowing the lawn, Bob’s legs gave out and he fell, dislocating his shoulder and tearing a rotator cuff.
On his way into shoulder surgery, the anesthesiologist asked him why his medical records show that he sees a cardiologist. Bob told him about the heart murmur. The doctor then asked if Bob had spoken to his cardiologist about doing this surgery. Bob said no, because he did not see why that would be related. Luckily, the anesthesiologist was able to quickly contact Bob’s cardiologist, whom requested the surgery be cancelled and for Bob to see him immediately. Two days later, Bob was having open heart surgery instead of shoulder surgery.
Let’s take a break from this story for a moment to note that throughout Bob’s recalling of these events, he was calm, humble, and fairly matter-of-fact. There was no sensationalizing in his retelling, yet it was remarkably captivating. For those of you who have yet to meet Bob, you should know that he is kind, modest, and does not like to bring attention to himself. In fact, he admitted that he was uncomfortable sharing his story for a while because he doesn’t see himself as anyone special, but rather just a person who has had some crazy things happen to him. Thankfully, he was able to get over that discomfort so that he can now share the riveting details of his medical journey.
In Bob’s open heart surgery, he had two valves replaced with mechanical valves. Doctors promised him that with time, these new valves would have him feeling like a new man. As you can probably guess, that never happened. After four years and no significant recovery, Bob told his doctors that he suspected something was wrong. He was sent to Shands Hospital in Gainesville for a thorough check-up and within a few hours of his visit, he was on the transplant list for a new heart.
Bob spent a total of 14 months in Shands while on the transplant list. In that time, he made himself comfortable, getting to know the staff and other patients on his floor. Every evening around 5PM, a nurse would call his room to ask for his dinner order. On March 13, 2014, Bob was on his cell phone chatting with his wife. His room phone rang around 5PM and Bob decided to ignore it and continue is conversation. It rang again; he ignored it again. A nurse popped in his room and said, “Hey, Bob. I think you really want to answer that phone.” That is when he knew it was not regarding his dinner, but rather his heart. Bob got a new heart a few hours later.
During his transplant surgery, doctors informed Bob’s family that they didn’t think he was going to make it due to loss of blood and that they should prepare themselves for that possibility. Bob did make it, but there were some complications. His doctors were not able to close his chest cavity and had to wire his breast bone shut, effectively keeping him in the hospital for an extra 4 months. In this time, nurses would allow Bob to use a mirror while they dressed his chest wound so that he could actually see his new heart beating inside of his chest, which he thoroughly enjoyed doing.
Today, six years after his heart transplant, Bob is 51 years old and doing fairly well. He still experiences side effects from the rejection medications he is on, and he will pretty much always experience those. He does not take any chances when it comes to his health as his immune system is not nearly as strong as the average person, however he is able to work out again without becoming fatigued. He very much enjoys lifting weights and being active, just like he was in high school. Bob often works out with his son, Jacob, who became inspired to take control of his own fitness journey because of his dad’s persistence and will to live. Bob’s gratitude is palpable – the gratitude for his family’s love and support, for his heart donor, for his doctors, and for everything that went right when it could have very easily gone wrong. He understands that with everything he has been through, it is truly a miracle that he is alive.
Every year in April, Bob celebrates Donate for Life month by sharing his story with whomever he can – high school students studying driver’s ed, radio shows, me. He is now much more comfortable sharing his story because he realizes that it could help someone. Whether that is someone who needs a little faith to keep fighting through their own medical struggles, or someone who feels inspired to be an organ donor, he realizes his story has the potential to save people. Catch him on a good day and he will tell you that he is winning, because really, he is. In the several battles for his life, he has won and he continues to win by living and telling others about how precious it is to be alive.