Thrive by IU Health

July 21, 2017

He Has The Heart Of A Champion

He Has The Heart Of A Champion

“A poster child for chronic disease.”

That’s how Dylan Deem, 25, once described himself. But there’s more – he’s an award-winning athlete, he’s a college graduate, he’s an author . . . he’s a survivor.

His young life was interrupted at the age of four when he was diagnosed with Synovial Cell sarcoma and was treated with a partial left leg amputation and high doses of chemotherapy. He gradually declined and the side effects from chemotherapy lead to his first heart transplant. After a stormy post-transplant, his first heart failed and he required a second heart transplant.

“A valuable lesson I learned early in life is that most things are 80% mental and 20% physical, so if you truly and deeply believe that you can overcome whatever atrocity afflicts you, then you've already won the battle,” said Deem.

Overcoming challenges isn’t just a goal; it’s a mindset for Deem, who lives in Spencer, Ind.

Just weeks before leaving for Malaga, Spain to compete in the World Transplant Games, this month, Deem was in the emergency room. He was dehydrated, weak and nauseous. But he had come this far and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way.

“I had already made up my mind that I was still going to Spain regardless of what happened . . .I've endured a lot of things in my life, so dehydration was something I felt like I could deal with,” said Deem.

He competed in shot put and discus events and brought home two bronze medals. It was his first trip out of the United States and he was in awe of the beauty of Malaga, a city on the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Spain.

Winning the medals was a triumph but it’s not the only recent accomplishment for Deem.

He authored a book “The Heart of a Champion” that tells about his journey through illness, two transplant surgeries, and recovery.

“I decided to write my book in an effort to both help myself and others. I was admittedly going through a rough patch with some depression and needed to reassure myself that I was here for a reason,” said Deem. “Before writing, I felt stagnant, like there was no progress in my life.” Once he completed the 222 pages, he realized his blessings and wanted to inspire others, he said.

Deem graduated from high school in 2010 and was studying Kinesiology at Indiana State University when his congestive heart failure began flaring up. There were other complications too – a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation and a blood clot in his heart.

“I moved back home and sat in my dark room every day for a year until I decided that I was tired of wasting my potential,” said Deem. He started back to college at Ivy Tech Bloomington in 2012. He was back in school full time winning in his classes and making Dean’s List when his 10-year advanced heart failure reached the end stage. On Oct. 20, 2014, Deem was given two years to live if he didn’t have a heart transplant. Two months later on Dec. 5, 2014 he received his first heart transplant but the heart failed. He had a second transplant just a month later on Jan. 9, 2015.

At IU Health Methodist Hospital, Deem was in the care of Dr. Marco Caccamo.

“I had an amazing team in pre-transplant, during surgery and post-transplant. The ICU team, nurses, physical/occupational/speech therapists, palliative care teams, resource and financial managers all offered amazing support. Everyone provided me with the highest standard of care,” said Deem. “The cumulative care of all the teams members sustained and improved my quality of life.

“Two and a half years ago, I literally lay lifeless in the ICU with my chest ripped open, only being supported by a ventilator, ECMO circuit, and 24-hour kidney dialysis following my second heart transplant and seventh open heart surgery in six week's time.”

And here he is today.

In May, after seven years of medical setbacks, Deem earned his college degree in Kinesiology. He hopes to eventually work as a professional trainer working with sports teams.

What has inspired him the most?

“Life has inspired me the most. For the majority of my 25 years on Earth, I've spent each breathing second being chronically ill. I knew no different, but from that suffering - I gained so much,” said Deem. “ I've gained strength. I've gained wisdom. I've gained the knowledge needed to survive these diseases that don’t often have happy endings.”

And what would he tell others going through similar health challenges?

“A diagnosis doesn't necessarily mean a death sentence. While some diseases advance more aggressively than others, there's still time to stop and smell the roses and enjoy life. God has given you these issues because he knows you're strong enough to endure them. You will have good days as well as bad, but never give up the fight - no matter how long you have to wait for the sun to shine.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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