The finish line was 0.2 miles away when Trent Fielder stood up from his wheelchair.
It had been a hard 70.1 miles. He swam and biked with his specialized bicycle over dozens of miles. He tore his rotator cuffs and both biceps 17 miles in. At 57.2 miles, he finally joined the foot race in New Orleans, headed for the end of the half Iron Man marathon in October 2018.
First responders, service men and women and police officers joined him as he fell behind the other runners. His helmet and stickers on his wheelchair proclaimed he was doing this race for them.
Fielder thought they would tell him to quit and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he told them he wouldn’t. Instead, they agreed — we won’t let you quit now, they told him.
With the finish line in sight, Fielder started to push himself up from the chair. The group helped him stand and put their arms around him as he took the first few steps. As he got closer, Fielder stepped away from their embrace. Unable to feel anything below his waist, he steadied into the pattern of walking the group had helped establish. He slowly started to lengthen his stride and ran across the finish line on his own two feet.
Fielder’s journey to the finish line was longer than just those 70.3 miles, though. Two years before, he had been considering killing himself as his health problems piled on. After a stranger helped change his perspective, he started a new mission of making sure others are reminded, like he was, that there is hope.
Fielder, 44, was paralyzed in 2011 by a rare condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, the same condition that kept Dallas Cowboys player Travis Frederick on the bench in 2018 when he was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease.
With Guillain-Barre, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the nervous system, destroying nerves that allow the brain to communicate with the muscles.
Fielder’s paralysis started seven months after his wife gave birth to twins. Fielder thought he was just overtired from work until one day, he tried to drive home and couldn’t get his feet to work the gas pedals.
At the hospital, doctors had him lie down for a CT scan. After 20 minutes, they told him he could get up. He couldn’t.
“The doctor asked me, ‘have you ever heard of Guillain-Barre?’ And I asked if that was another doctor in the hospital,” Fielder said. “When I really knew I was in trouble was when each doctor pronounced it in a different way. That showed me it’s not something they see very often.”
In April 2012, Fielder and his family moved back to Texas where he’d grown up.
A string of misfortunes followed the family’s 2012 move.
The day after moving back, Fielder’s father died.
Shortly after, Fielder was diagnosed with CIDP, a neurological disorder that worsened his paralysis.
In December 2013, Fielder had surgery to alleviate some of the pain in his spine, but the surgery went badly. In January, he developed an embolism, or blood clot — the same clotting disorder that had killed his father. In the two minutes it took EMS to get to his house, Fielder said he saw his life as if through a stained glass window. His wife’s face, his children, each moment — he took it all in and felt blessed.
‘DARKNESS BACK INTO LIGHT’
After the embolism that nearly killed him, Fielder spent two months in rehab at Texas Rehab in Fort Worth. He had no muscle response from the midsection down and the pain was getting worse.
“I was very depressed. I would start to make some improvements, but then would go back,” Fielder said. “I was fighting against the disease that constantly wanted to kill me.”
At one point, Fielder contemplated suicide. The hardships in his life — watching the woman he loved when he was younger kill herself in front of him, being sexually abused as a child, and now his disease — weighed on him.
“I was in a restaurant and had made that decision that I was worth more to my family dead than alive. I was staring at a plate of food, and someone came up to me that I had never seen and never did again. They just put their hand on my shoulder and my arm. And in that second, it brought that darkness back into light,” he said.
He decided he wanted to do for others what that stranger had done for him.
“Suffering is suffering and it should not be an opportunity for us to separate ourselves from everybody, which I did,” Fielder said. “It’s an opportunity for us to put our hand on someone else and to say, ‘I am here.’”
In 2014, Fielder started doing physical therapy at Texas Health Neighborhood Care & Wellness Burleson, a part of Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. There, physical therapist Amy Gonzalez started working with him.
They started with Fielder’s posture, Gonzalez said, working on sitting up straight and basic balance. Since Fielder was still completely paralyzed, they strengthened his upper body and core.
Eventually, he was able to stand up in a pool.
“All this happened over a period of several months and years,” Gonzalez said.
TRAINING BEGINSIn January 2016, Fielder said he and his wife were talking to their twin children about what the new year means. They explained it’s an opportunity to start fresh and pray for others.
“My little 4-year-old daughter, she dropped to her knees and put her little, bitty hands together and started praying. She said, ‘Dear God, in this new year, I want my daddy to walk again,’ “ Fielder said.
That Monday, Fielder was training with Gonzalez in the pool when he felt his hips move.
He still couldn’t feel his legs, but Fielder and Gonzalez started looking for ways to use that sensation so Fielder could control his legs.
They wrapped his legs in PVC pipe, knee pads, compression stockings and golf balls. If he struck his heel against the ground in a certain way, the movement would send a vibration through the leg. With the equipment bridging the gaps between skin and bone, the sensation would travel to his hip.
“The tissue and muscle in my hips, I use them like piano keys,” Fielder said. “I make that vibration, and I can tell what to do.”
In 2017, Fielder joined the Adaptive Training Foundation, an organization run by a former NFL linebacker that helps wounded veterans and others test the limits they’ve set for themselves.
ATF also introduced him to 22 Kill, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention for veterans and first responders. The name represents the 22 service men and women who kill themselves each day. Fielder wanted to help give people hope by sharing his experiences and what he has overcome.
Through ATF and physical therapy at Texas Health Resources in Burleson, Fielder worked on his physical abilities. He started swimming and walking — first with braces, and then taking a few steps without them.
“The reflexes weren’t there. The test results showed I had a crippling disease. But I still kept getting stronger,” Fielder said.
At ATF graduation in January 2018, the group discussed what they wanted to do next. Without thinking, Fielder blurted out his next goal; he wanted to do a half Iron Man.
His only experience with marathons was running a 5K when he was 15 years old, but Fielder knew what he wanted.
Gonzalez said she could not believe it at first when Fielder told her his goal, but she had already seen him overcome more than they thought possible.
“He’s blown us away in the medical community. We would have looked at it medically and said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to happen for you,’ and he’s just called us all liars basically,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been great to see him push the limits every time and do more than he thought was possible.”
Arlene White, nursing supervisor for Texas Health Burleson’s cardiac rehab, became Fielder’s triathlete coach and the training began.
“His faith, determination and courage are an inspiration to others,” White said. “His hard work and dedication to training was admirable even at times when he was receiving his treatments. He is an absolute miracle.”
Fielder said his secret was that while he trained, he focused on other people.
“I knew if I was going to do it for myself and for my own reasons, I wouldn’t be able to work through the pain,” he said. “Every day I trained, biked or was in the wheelchair, I would just pray for other people.”
THE STORY CONTINUES
After eight months of training, the marathon arrived.
His wheelchair was covered in 22 Kill stickers and Bible verses. As he crossed the finish line on his own, Fielder collapsed. Unbeknownst to him, people who witnessed his feat were sharing it online.
“People reached out to me, wanting hope. People that were on the cusp of suicide or hopelessness,” he said. “And now they were willing to take that step forward.”
He was also getting messages from the thousands of people who watched a short documentary about him created by the Teardrop Project, an organization that travels the U.S., telling people’s stories through film-making.
In the video, Fielder shares for the first time his story of sexual abuse. He said after that, people reached out to him and said he inspired them to share similar secrets they had long ago tried to bury.
Fielder’s next goal is to walk 22 miles in 22 hours in honor of 22 Kill.
“I’ll find a way to do it. It might take more than 22 hours, but I will get those 22 miles in,” he said.
After that, he hopes to participate in the Iron Man event in his hometown of Waco, Texas.
More than anything, though, he said he will keep doing his best to bring hope to others.
“You’re not as alone as you think you are, or as desperate as you feel, or as empty as you think,” he said. “Your life has worth. Take that extra breath. And realize therae are people out there that want to be part of your life. My story and your story aren’t really that different — it’s our story together.”