Starting a race is a heart-pounding moment for any runner. When J.P. Dunn ’79 took his first steps in the Philadelphia Half-Marathon last fall, the heart that beat in his chest had been there for less than a year.
Dunn was on the soccer and track teams at Amherst and ran his first marathon at age 31. During the San Francisco Bay to Breakers race in 1990, he suddenly found he could run no more than 100 feet without getting “completely exhausted.”
He was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmias, which worsened in subsequent years. His mother had the same condition—hereditary cardiomyopathy, the result of a rare gene mutation. She died not long after her heart transplant, as did a cousin who was awaiting a transplant.
Dunn received his first pacemaker in 2003. “But then, after the last marathon I ran, in 2008, I rapidly went downhill,” he says. His cardiologist told him he’d eventually need a transplant.
He was placed on a heart transplant list in July 2014. By the following month, he was too weak to continue his ophthalmology practice.
On Halloween night he got the call: a donor had been found. His transplant, performed the next day, was initially a glowing success. Dunn found it “easier than a root canal,” and among his first questions was, “How much can I exercise?”
Ten days later, though, the sac around his new heart began to bleed, and he faced another eight-hour surgery and five weeks in the hospital. To motivate himself through recovery, Dunn set a goal: “running the half-marathon in Philadelphia within a year,” ideally in under three hours.
His doctors were supportive. His wife, sister and two daughters promised to run with him. So did his Amherst roommate, soccer teammate and fraternity brother Peter Friedrichs ’79, a minister living near Philadelphia.
Dunn’s training progressed from walking the hospital hallways to running 10-mile “slogs,” but there were setbacks, including infections and kidney failure.
The race took place on Oct. 31, 2015—364 days after the transplant. “I was really worried thatI was not going to finish,” says Dunn. But, even after pulling a hamstring near the end, he did: “Peter; my sister; and Cindy, my wife—we all finished, all together, in two hours and 57 minutes.” Friedrichs, who “had never run more than a 5K” before committing to train with Dunn, describes his friend’s feat as “one of the gutsier performances I’ve ever seen.”
At the finish line, Dunn thought about all the people who’d helped him through the transplant. “I had unbelievable doctors and nurses, and I had tremendous support from friends and family,” he says.
And, of course, he had a donor— an anonymous woman six years his junior—toward whose family he feels tremendous gratitude.
Since the half-marathon, Dunn says he’s been “constantly sick,” struggling with bronchitis, shingles and gout. But he’s set a new goal: Within three years, he’d like to run the mile in the World Transplant Games.