CINCINNATI — David Barber will be one of thousands gathered at The Banks on Sunday morning to participate in the 21st Flying Pig Marathon.
His goal is to finish the 13.1-mile half marathon, the farthest he has ever run.
While his race-day goal may not be unique, Barber’s reason for running and his journey to the Flying Pig’s “Starting Swine” certainly is.
“Aside from this being my first half marathon,” he said, “it’s also my first big race since last August when I received a heart transplant.”
And because of that, two of Barber’s strongest supporters, , will be with him in spirit as he starts the race.
“They’ve been terrifically supportive of me,” Barber said of the Bishops. “They’ve been keeping track of me and we talk a lot. So, they’re with me as well.”
A long road behind
In the winter of 2015, Barber said he found it increasingly difficult to stay focused. He also experienced an unusual shortness of breath while doing simple tasks around the house.
Doctors diagnosed him with congenital heart failure. Barber’s father, Wayne, was diagnosed with the same condition more than 20 years ago and eventually received a new heart.
“I was treated with pharmaceuticals for a couple of years, did fairly well with that treatment but then in the spring of 2017 my condition got a lot worse,” the younger Barber said. “At that point in time, I got a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.”
An LVAD is a mechanical pump implanted into the chest of someone with end-stage heart failure. The pump is connected to an external battery pack via a tube fed through a patient’s chest in order to keep blood flowing throughout the person’s body.
After recovering from surgery, Barber was placed on the University of Kentucky Medical Center transplant list in Lexington. He then spent the next 15 months carrying around the external 20-pound pump that kept him alive.
In August, Barber received a new heart from a 21-year-old donor, the son of Dewey and Kristy Bishop.
Barber said his gratitude for being granted a new lease on life was, in large part, what motivated him to train for the Flying Pig half marathon. He said he wanted to do something life-affirming.
Get out and run
“From what David was telling me, he was out for a walk and all of a sudden he felt this urge to get out and run,” said Eric Oliver, founder and owner of Beyond Exercise in Oakley.
Barber contacted Oliver one day and told him he wanted to use Beyond Exercise’s physical therapy, nutrition and strength training services to train for the race.
“The more I learned about his story and he was telling me what happened last fall and how he had this heart transplant and is now inspired to run a half marathon,” Oliver said, “I thought ‘You know what? This guy, he earns the right to be able to get our support just because of what he’s had to go through.””
While Barber has followed his own running regiment, he said he has relied on Beyond Exercise’s staff and his doctor to make sure he was in the best shape possible at the starting line.
Oliver is one of many on Team Barber.
“The first time I saw my new heart on an echocardiogram, I had the words that I wanted to say to them,” Barber said of the anonymous letter he sent to Dewey and Kristy Bishop, the parents of Matthew Bishop, whose heart now beats in Barber’s chest.
A couple of months later, the Bishops wrote Barber back.
“He got our letter right around Thanksgiving,” Kristy Bishop said. “The next thing we know, we’re getting a friend request from a man in Cincinnati, Ohio, saying, ‘You don’t know me, but I think I’ve got your son’s heart’ … and it just took off. It’s been nine months now and he’s almost like one of our kids now.”
In early August, the Bishops decided to donate Matthew’s organs after he took his own life.
“There’s just a gratitude there that’s hard to understand unless you’re in that situation,” Barber said.
Dewey Bishop said Barber’s desire to thank them was an answered prayer after their son’s death.
“You know we prayed so hard that we could keep our son in our life with us and that wasn’t in the cards for us,” Dewey said. “So, I feel that was God’s way of saying, ‘You know, I can’t give you this. But you can have this.’ And that was the next best thing, being able to know his heart still beats and to know it’s with somebody that can really appreciate it and do him justice.”
Kristy Bishop described Matthew as a caring soul who lived a healthy, physically active lifestyle but often struggled with depression.
“He wanted to help the world and this was his final act of kindness,” she said of her and her husband’s decision to donate their son’s organs for transplant. “He gave families their loved ones back.”
She now implores all parents to pay attention to the mental health of their children.
Dewey Bishop added that after getting to know Barber, he could not think of anyone better to carry their son’s heart.
Running for silver
In March, the Bishops traveled more than two hours from their home in Milltown, Indiana, to cheer Barber across the Heart Mini Marathon finish line. Barber ran the annual nine-mile race organized by the American Heart Association as part of his half marathon training plan.
Dewey Bishop even presented Barber with his finisher’s medal at the end of that race.
“It felt like we’re standing there rooting for Matthew to come across the line,” Dewey said of the experience. “We know it’s David, but still, you know, they’re carrying each other.”
He also believes Barber’s journey to the Flying Pig half marathon is a story about Barber and his son.
Barber has his own take.
“My story is not about me at all,” Barber said. “My story is about my donor and his family, my family and then all of the doctors and nurses and medical professionals that have helped me along the way.”
To honor all of those people, Barber will stand out in another, very visible way at the Flying Pig’s “Starting Swine.”
On Wednesday, he went to Black Rabbit Salon in East Walnut Hills, where stylist Victoria Kelly gave him a mohawk and dyed his pepper-gray hair neon green. The shade of green is the same used by nonprofit Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) to symbolize organ donations.
Barber hopes his mohawk piques enough interest that people who see him on Sunday ask what the story behind it is.
“That’s the whole goal of the ‘do,’ is yeah, come up take pictures, introduce yourself,” he said.
For the Bishops, Barber’s mission on Sunday to run 13.1 miles with their son’s heart beating in his chest symbolizes something else as well.
“No matter what it is, out of every dark cloud there’s a silver lining,” Dewey Bishop said. “Try to find the best in the worst. It’s hard at times. It really, really is. As dark as it may seem, there’s always some little ray of light out there.”
To identify yourself as an organ donor, visit the Donate Life America website at donatelife.net and choose your state of residence to learn about the options in your area.