Rod Marshdale – A Life Without Limits

Meet Rod Marshdale – an ordinary bloke from the country, living an extraordinary life, one without limits. But it hasn’t always been easy for Rod. Born with Cystic Fibrosis the challenges he has faced over the years have been incredible – he has stared death in the face, yet time and again he has defied the odds. And now he’s on a mission not only to achieve what he thought was once impossible but to inspire others and raise awareness for the causes closest to his heart. This is his story.

Australian Triathlete (AT): First up, tell us a bit about yourself – you were born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). What is CF and how does it impact your day-to-day life?
Rod Marshdale (RM): Honestly, I’m still working out who I am. I’ve lived my entire life with the very real possibility that I only have a handful of years to live. I’m a dreamer and I love to travel. I’m also a family man – I’d fight to the death for my family. I relish the challenge of being told, “you can’t do that”. My response is always, “watch me!” (Laughs) I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety – this has been a constant foe of mine, to this day.

CF is a genetically inherited disease – it is the biggest genetic childhood killer in the world. It affects the lungs and digestive system, and once diagnosed requires daily treatment. For me it meant taking enzyme pills for my digestive system, however, the greatest burden was the twice-daily treatment required to keep my chest clear of phlegm. Basically, people with CF create phlegm in their lungs, which is much thicker than normal and there is much more of it too. If not removed it harbours bacteria that creates infection and that requires IV antibiotics and lengthy hospital stays to treat the infection. To remove the phlegm requires approximately an hour of nebulised medicine along with manual percussion physio to help dislodge the phlegm twice per day, every day. I did it for 40 years! What is clear now is that regular exercise removes these secretions more naturally and creates a strength that greatly enhances life expectancy in CF. It also reduces the burden of manual percussion physio and enhances recovery from the inevitable hospital admissions required.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I came to realise CF is a killer. My hospital admissions in Sydney (about 600km from home) introduced me to the early death sentence that it was. I had twice daily physio sessions but apart from that, I was free. Free to ride my bike wherever I wanted; to swim in the irrigation channels and explore life not wrapped in cotton wool. I put it down to an amazingly devoted and deeply loving set of parents – I didn’t have to confront the challenges I know many and most do. CF never stopped me doing things I wanted to until the disease took hold in my 30s. Until then I feel it actually helped develop a defiance and determination in me. When the challenges did inevitably come, and they have a hundred thousand times, I used my imagination to “find a way”. Admittedly, at first I did wallow in depression and had two admissions (2005 and 2009) in a mental health unit – I felt no hope, saw no future and thought to end my life was a merciful act to not only myself but my family also who had endured years of uncertainty and daily physio required someone to sacrifice on a daily basis. It hurts to admit this yet it’s how it was.

AT: Wow. Your courage and strength to get through that is incredible. So, tell us about your background in sport. Despite having CF you mention you loved to ride your bike and to swim – tell us more about that.
RM: My one sporting passion growing up was AFL. I played my first game in “mod rules” (similar to AFL Auskick nowadays) at about six-years-old and also from under-13s until under-18s I played and trained with The Leeton Redlegs club very successfully. I was underdeveloped due to CF but I was chosen to represent The Riverina squad in my earlier teens and contributed every week to The Redlegs team. This was until, in 1987 when I spent a month in the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, Sydney due to a chest infection from CF. I never fully recovered and spent the last year of my footy years struggling for the fitness to play with the intensity I’d always known. That was a deep grief. As I said, I’m a dreamer though and I kept my jersey and football boots, hoping a cure would be found and I would not die but wear my uniform again. Thirty years on I wore that jersey and the boots and kicked a footy around with my sons a few months after my lung transplant. Apart from footy, I rode my bike everywhere growing up and swam in the irrigation channels regularly for fun. I just loved the outdoors.

More recently, prior to discovering triathlon I would sporadically swim and walk – I had very little structure really. Now I have a more definite purpose – my goal is to complete an Ironman 70.3. So I have a goal each morning, which is important to me. I guess I’ve evolved from “trying not to die” pre-transplant to “having a reason for living” post-transplant as I am passionate about raising awareness about exercise and nutrition for CF kids. I’m really only at the beginning of all this but I already feel like triathlon is almost a “family” in a way and I hope to make a difference somehow.

AT: In 2015 you had a double lung transplant to save your life from CF. Tell us about that.
RM: In 2011 my CF health deteriorated rapidly and perplexingly. The culprit turned out to be a mould infestation in the roof cavity of my home, however by the time this was discovered, and despite many months of investigation and hospital treatment, my lungs had declined to the point that in October 2012 I accepted my Professor’s recommendation to undergo a “lung transplant workup”. This was advised due to the time it takes to firstly, pass the many required medical tests to be accepted on the transplant waiting list and to then live long enough waiting for that phone call to say, “We have a set of lungs for you, Rod. Get here (St Vincent’s hospital Sydney)!” I had been well prepared during the transplant workup for the necessity of having a bag packed and then waiting for when that call came.

I had one false call-up to race to St Vincent’s in April 2013, just one week after I had been accepted on the list. I received a call at 1 AM and my family raced the three hours from Forster to Sydney for the operation. I was on the operating table, surrounded by about 15 mask-clad, expert medical professionals all prepared with tubes everywhere, shaved, covered in disinfectant and told, “We are putting you to sleep now, Rod.” However, I wasn’t seeing the “blotching of blackness” to indicate sleep that I’d come to know so well after years of operations. Instead,

I felt tapping on my leg and a voice saying, “Rod, Rod – open your eyes.” I did and immediately saw dejection on those 15 faces and was told, “We are so sorry mate – the operation has been called off.

We have just been notified they found nodules within the donor lungs at the last moment. They cannot be used.” I was wheeled back to the ward and had everything removed, got dressed and waited for my family to be notified to come back to the hospital. That day sucked.

Infancy to adulthood: Cystic Fibrosis has been with Rod Marshdale since birth.  Post Surgery: (Right) I’m going to make it.

 

In November 2013 I was flown by Westpac Rescue helicopter to the hospital following an accidental medication overdose and told my Professor had delisted me for transplant, and that I only had hours to days left to live. He told me that my family were on their way and to prepare myself to say my goodbyes. Seeing my two sons when they arrived and telling them is the nadir of my life and the way they handled themselves is an equal zenith. My dad kissed me on the lips (first time ever) and told me how proud he was of me and said goodbye. I cannot recall what happened with Mum, she never left my bedside from that minute, she was absolutely grief-stricken, maybe I will remember one day. We planned my funeral and waited. To the amazement of my Professor, I was still alive a few days later, and he came to my room and talked me through the death process. He told me I’d fought beyond measure and it was time to let go and I’d be in no pain, that my family were proud of me, that my sons would be ok; that it was a heartache for everyone “waiting”… I won’t go on. I’ll simply say, it is very, very hard to kill the human spirit if it has a reason to fight.
I didn’t die.

I went home after a month on oxygen and wore a Bi-Pap mask every night.

My sons did 40-minutes of physio twice a day, my parents moved the 10 hours to stay with us and Mum cooked and cleaned, while Dad was his usual rock. I knew at Christmas 2014 I had very little time left though, I couldn’t walk from my toilet to my bed without feeling I was going to faint and grew scared, I simply couldn’t accept we had fought like Devils for two years, for naught. Then on the 15 January 2015, I got that magical call to get to St Vincent’s immediately. We got there and the very last thing I remember is my son saying: “Don’t you die on me now Dad,” as everyone left the ward. Talk about pressure! My operation took around 10 hours.

I was in recovery/ICU for just four hours after the operation was finished when a decision was made to extubate me from mechanical ventilation as I was breathing strongly and deeply beyond the ventilators measures. The tube was removed and I was so “zoned” to just breath that when the tube slid out and I took my first solo breaths I felt, “I’m going to make it!” Twenty-four hours after that I got up with the physio and walked 80-metres; they wouldn’t let me go any further, although I wanted too. After four days I was transferred from ICU to the ward for three weeks. After a week in that ward, I could walk a kilometre without oxygen and I just kept at it until I was discharged three weeks post-transplant, walking three kilometres. I asked my team was it possible to do an Ironman one day as I was high on drugs and felt amazing! They said, “Yeah Rod, you go for it.” They totally admit now they didn’t see it happening nor believed I was serious. I was always an organ donor from when I got my license at 17. However, I’m now hoping to raise awareness of just what a massive difference organ donation makes to families as well as to honour my donor and their family – Beauty for Ashes.

AT: Talk us through your foray into triathlon – why triathlon?
RM: Prior to my transplant I always believed that the stronger I could be going into the operation, the greater would be my chances of survival, as well as better quality of life and longevity. I remember going to the pool and swimming 25 metres and feeling like exhausted. But I had five minutes rest and swam back. I did 4 x 25-metre laps that first day and eventually built up to swimming two kilometres in 80 minutes with my CF lungs. After my transplant, I went back to the pool and swam 250 metres in 10 minutes.

A week later I swam two kilometres in 60minutes. Within two months I broke 40 minutes for two kilometres. I learnt that the Australian Transplant Games were being held in Sydney (a bi-annual event) and was encouraged to give it a go. I won three Silver medals and a Bronze swimming and was invited to represent Australia the following year in Malaga Spain at the World Transplant Games. I finished fifth in the 200-metre Freestyle final. My highlight though was to get to lead the Australian relay team off in the 4×50 freestyle. During the swim meet, I got to speak with the only other Aussie swimming who had a double lung transplant, Kate Phillips.

Very few lung transplant recipients compete in swimming at that level, yet she was swimming in the 400-metre [Freestyle] that day that was a part of her triathlon event. As we spoke I realised we shared a similar “psychological” barrier to learning to breathe again and push new limits. I found out she had done an Olympic distance tri, three years after her transplant and even completed Ironman 70.3 Cairns. I returned home from Spain and began riding and walking too. Inspired, my “Ironman” crazy talk to the doctor’s three weeks post-transplant became a very real possibility due to Kate and the fact I love a challenge.

Competition: Honoured to represent Australia.

 

AT: That’s awesome! So, Have you picked a half iron event yet?
RM: I’m considering Ironman 70.3 Cairns. But looking after my dad is a priority at the moment. So, if not Cairns it will be shortly after. I’m so new at this I am still learning when and where these events are!

AT: Having a strong team around you is so important when trying to achieve big goals. Who makes up ‘Team Rod’?
RM: Mum and dad have always been incredibly supportive and despite recent events still are. My two sons, Ben and Jesse are amazing – heart and soul. They are, and have been my driving force – I’d be dead without them, and they continue to cheer me on. My sisters always chip in and have done for years. I was fortunate to be invited to attend a High-Performance Transplant Athlete Training Camp put together by Transplant Australia recently. One of the high profile speakers was Adam “Adsy” Gordon, a professional triathlete and personal coach. He singled me out and encouraged me at the sports camp, which was so uplifting. We are in contact now and I’d love him to be acknowledged. Then lastly ‘Team Rod’ is non-existent without my anonymous donor – ‘Team Rod’ is a duo competing as one. Words can’t describe how incredible this feels.

 

Fun Facts

  • One thing you can’t live without… Lungs! (Laughs) No, cuddles
  • If not triathlon… Hang Gliding
  • When not training… Following horse racing, in particular jockey, Harry Coffee who has Cystic Fibrosis and is very successful!
  • Bucket list race… IRONMAN Florida
  • Someone who you admire… Professor John Beveridge, founder of Sydney Children’s Hospital (deceased). Prof J.B diagnosed me in 1974 and I am in regular contact with his wife, Libby, and son Prof Sandy Beveridge to this very day. No Greater Physician …
  • Name a hidden talent… Now I have new lungs – singing
  • Most embarrassing moment in training/racing to date… When I racked my borrowed at the then Kingscliff tri, while I was putting my bike sticker on a lady came up with her husband and said: “Oh look, love, an old vintage Giant bike.” A few people around had a giggle! It’s funny now, however, I looked at all the bikes after she said that and yeah, my bike old! (Laughs)
  • If there were a movie made about you it would be called… Come Fiercely My Eternity

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Mielczarek

Margaret Mielczarek is the deputy editor at Australian Triathlete Magazine and writes the web series 'Shenanigans of a Deputy 2.0'. She is a passionate age-group triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher - currently in training for Ironman number five!

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