BY MOLLY BRUSH
At 26, Spencer resident Dylan Deem has spent more time in hospitals than most people do in a lifetime. When he was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that usually occurs in adults.
“I was the second kid in Riley Hospital history to have that type of cancer,” he says. A combination of chemotherapy and the amputation of part of his left leg successfully eradicated the cancer, and Deem has been cancer-free ever since. But the powerful chemotherapy drugs damaged his heart, and he developed cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and is less able to pump blood to the body.
The cardiomyopathy was treated with medication, and for 10 years Deem was able to live an active life. But in 2004, at the age of 14, his health began to decline. The cardiomyopathy had progressed to congestive heart failure, and his heart function was just 35 percent.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, heart beating out of my chest, nauseated, throwing up,” Deem says. “I couldn’t breathe.” He went from being an active young man who played four sports to being unable to walk up stairs.
At first, Deem didn’t want to accept his diagnosis. But over time he adjusted and continued to live life as fully as possible. Though his prognosis was not encouraging—50 percent of people diagnosed with congestive heart failure die within five years—he refused to lose faith.
“I still had that hope that something would happen that would rescue me,” he says. He graduated from Owen Valley High School in 2010 and began attending Indiana State University.
But his heart function continued to decline, and in fall 2014, he faced a stark reality: without a heart transplant, he would die within a couple of years. The severity of his condition put him at the top of the transplant list, and on December 5, 2014, he received a new heart. Unfortunately, his body rejected the transplant, and Deem spent the next six weeks in the intensive care unit, fighting to regain enough strength to be eligible for another new heart. On January 19, 2015, one became available and this time the transplant was successful.
Deem spent the year following surgery focusing on regaining his health. By June 2016, he was ready to compete in the Transplant Games of America, where he won silver in cycling and badminton doubles and bronze in badminton singles, discus, and shot put. He followed his success there with bronze medals in discus and shot put at the World Transplant Games in Málaga, Spain, in July 2017.
Deem recently added another accomplishment to his list: completing his associate degree in kinesiology and exercise science at Ivy Tech Community College–Bloomington. His next goal is to earn his personal trainer certification and start his own personal training business.
He has also authored a memoir, Heart of a Champion, to share his experiences with chronic illness. He encourages others facing similar struggles to persevere through the challenges.
“You’re going to be tired, you’re going to be sore, you’re going to feel weak, you’re going to feel like giving up, but don’t,” he says. “Keep pushing, keep fighting. Because better days are coming.”