12 years ago this pastor was slowly dying. Two weeks ago, he was swimming competitively.

Brian Barndt, center, poses with two athletes from Team Thailand before the procession for the opening ceremonies for the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain Sunday, June 25, 2017.
Brian Barndt, center, poses with two athletes from Team Thailand before the procession for the opening ceremonies for the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain Sunday, June 25, 2017.

When Brian Barndt’s daughter was 2 years old, he struggled to explain to her why he couldn’t pick her up. A lifelong swimmer who competed at the college level, Barndt could barely swim one lap and was winded simply walking up his driveway.

Last month, that daughter, now a teenager, cheered him on as he competed in the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain, an international competition among people who have undergone heart, lung or other transplants.

In the 12 years since Barndt received his new heart, he has competed in two world games and four national ones, raking in 20 medals and breaking two records. He’s entered other competitions as well and was the first transplant recipient to complete the “Escape from Alcatraz” event, a 1.5-mile trek in San Francisco Bay at the site of the former island prison.

Barndt has relished his newfound ability to compete, but he also sees his efforts in a larger context – both a way to promote organ donation, and to help him share with others his spiritual journey through illness and recovery.

“Becoming an athlete again was truly a gift, and competing has been a great platform to be able to share with people that transplantation is a life-changing procedure,” he says.

Dr. Chet Patel, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center, where Barndt had his surgery, says Barndt has become an effective ambassador for transplants at a time when more organ donors are sorely needed. Nearly 120,000 people are awaiting an organ transplant in the United States. Every day, 22 of them die while they wait.

“He’s made the most of his second opportunity,” Patel says. “He uses his role and his position in a very positive way to tell his story and make sure people understand that organ donation is a real gift, and the more people that know about it, the more lives that can be saved.”

Always an athlete

Barndt grew up in southern New Jersey, near Philadelphia, where he rooted for the Eagles football team and was himself an avid athlete. He was a competitive swimmer from the age of 7, played basketball in a summer league and was a regular at the gym.

He competed at the Division I level as a swimmer at UNC-Wilmington and says he chose the college because they had a water polo team.

During a break in New Jersey during his junior year of college, however, his life suddenly changed when he went into heart failure.

“All of that just went upside down,” he says.

He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, in which the heart becomes enlarged and can’t pump enough blood. No cause for his disease was ever determined. Unlike the sudden punch of a heart attack, his disease gradually weakened his heart and body.

He was close to being considered for a transplant early on, but he pleaded to return to college, and his doctors relented. Over the next decade, his condition improved. He graduated from college, got married and went on to study divinity at Southeastern Seminary.

“I was managing OK,” he says. “I was never going back to basketball or competitive swimming, but I was able to do table tennis.”

When Barndt first fell ill, he was studying criminal justice with an eye toward being a police officer, but he also had struggled with substance abuse issues. After being arrested for drunken driving, he sought help recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, and started sharing his story with others, which led to a job in substance abuse education and counseling.

While he was still at the seminary, he started working with patients, first as a chaplain at Holly Hill Hospital, working with psychiatric patients, and later at UNC Hospitals, where he worked with terminally ill patients.

That last length of the pool will be a standing ovation, and it will bring you to tears, it’s so powerful. That’s where the celebration of life comes in.

Brian Barndt

He was pastor at a North Raleigh church and has been at Grey Stone Church in Durham for six years. His current role involves working with older people, as well as running a ministry for food and financial assistance and overseeing the church’s day care centers.

Eventually, his condition worsened. In 2001, he had a defibrillator implanted, which discharges a life-saving shock any time the wearer’s heart rate gets dangerously low. Barndt had dozens of these episodes, which would knock him to the ground.

He experienced panic attacks and developed an anxiety disorder. For a time, he battled with depression and hardly wanted to leave his house. He says his experience has helped him counsel others as a pastor.

“It’s profoundly impacted my ability to connect with people, to be able to discuss suffering and make meaning of it,” he says. “It is a part of who I am, and I don’t think that’s accidental.”

He continued to weaken and had another open-heart surgery in 2003 but still didn’t improve. A few months later, he was put on the list for a transplant. Fortunately, he was matched with a donor quickly.

After the transplant, he says, he was able to take full measure of how sick he had been.

“I was running on fumes,” he says. “We didn’t take a lot of pictures, because in the ones we had I was gaunt, with zero color. I was becoming skeletal. I was just slowly dying.”

Back in the race

His recovery, and his return to competition, was fast. He competed in his first transplant games, in Louisville, Kentucky, less than a year after his July 2005 heart transplant.

“I was home 17 days later, and I swam for the first time six weeks after that,” says Barndt. “Ten months later I was up on the starting block.”

The annual world games draws more than 2,000 athletes from 65 countries; this year, Barndt was among 135 U.S. athletes. He competed in table tennis and swimming, coming in shy of a medal at fifth place in two swimming events and just missing the quarterfinals in table tennis.

While the competition is intense, Barndt says the games are also a tribute to the resilience of transplant survivors. For instance, the audience often cheers loudest for the last person to finish the longest swimming event.

“That last length of the pool will be a standing ovation, and it will bring you to tears, it’s so powerful,” he says. “That’s where the celebration of life comes in.”

In addition to twice completing the race at Alcatraz, he organized teams of transplant recipients to do a triathlon in Wilmington in 2010. Their team name was the “Tin Men.”

He plans to continue competing, likely at the next world games in England.

“I’m going on 12 years of being healthy and I’m looking forward to making it 20,” he says. “I want to give hope, and the best way I can do that is to continue living my life.”

Brian Barndt

Born: December 1967, New Jersey

Residence: Wake Forest

Career: Executive pastor, Grey Stone Church

Education: B.A. criminal justice, UNC-Wilmington; master of divinity, Southeastern Seminary

Family: Wife Caroline; daughters Rachel and Laura

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