Second Chance: Monty Summers

QUEENSLAND RISING star Monty Summers was training hard for the national cross-country titles in 2006 – often running twice a day. The, then, 17-year-old was looking forward to a podium finish.

But, after a strong start in the Tasmanian race, he dropped from the front of the pack to the back with no explanation.

Frustrated and confused given such a successful young career competing for his Brisbane-based squad and boarding school, Churchie, Monty’s answers soon came.
“I ended up in the Mater Hospital with a fever and coughing up blood, that’s when they told me I had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.”

The diagnosis hit Monty’s family, especially his identical twin brother Tighe, hard. But Monty saw it as just a bad flu, and even asked where the nearest gym was.

It wasn’t until later that night when he was alone on the ward with his father that it sunk in. “He grabbed my hand and started breaking down and apologising for what had happened. This was my dad, my hero, if he was feeling like this I thought: ‘I’m in a bit of trouble here’.”

With his mother renaming the diagnosis Attitude, Laughter and Love, Monty underwent 12 months of chemotherapy and radiation. He tried to stay positive but admits to struggling with the pain and loneliness at times. Luckily, he says, there was always an itching reason to get through it – running. “I still had so much to achieve, thinking about running was a good distraction.”

On his better days, Monty would secretly carry his chemo bag to the gym and run on the treadmill, placing it in the drinks holder with intravenous tubes connecting to his arm!

For the best chance of survival a bone marrow transplant was needed. Doctors ruled Tighe out because the brothers’ genes were so similar it was feared if Monty’s body had missed the leukaemia cell, Tighe’s would too. So, using an unknown donor’s bone marrow, Monty was quarantined at the Royal Brisbane Hospital for another five weeks of treatment.

Monty’s body reacted badly – it was confused about how to respond to the foreign cells. He needed a feeding tube and a permanent morphine drip for days. But eventually his body accepted the stem cells and the transplant was deemed a success.

Before long Monty was back on the treadmill – free of his chemo bag – and clocking four or five kilometre stints a few times a week. Determined to make a career of helping other transplant patients’ benefit from physical activity, he also began studying exercise science and business management at the University of Queensland.

In early 2009, Monty returned to athletics. Although he was never as fast as he once was, distance wasn’t a problem and he capitalised on it. With 13 mates, he ran a 1200 kilometre relay from Brisbane to Longreach raising almost $100,000 for the Leukaemia Foundation and AEIOU (Children with Autism).

“I wanted to share my story. I was actually grateful for leukaemia – it’s allowed me to restructure how I perceive life and created opportunities for me to help others.

“We talked to local communities about staying motivated and getting what you want out of life.”

The next year Monty made history at the Australian Transplant Games in Newcastle. Since 1988, the Games have celebrated a second chance at life for all those touched by donation. “My story pales compared to some of my competitors,” says Monty, who now holds the national Games records for every distance between 200m and 5000m.

Monty’s dream of running for Australia finally came true in 2013. With his family in the stands he competed at the World Transplant Games in South Africa winning three gold, one silver and one bronze, plus claiming world records in the 1500m, 800m and 400m events. “I was on top of the world, but the celebrations were short lived,” he recalls.

During the closing ceremony, Monty’s father had a brain haemorrhage and was rushed to a local Durban hospital. For three weeks the family held a bedside vigil, but there was nothing doctors could do.

This time it was Monty who held his dad’s hand in hospital and cried.

“One thing all of this has taught me is that reasons always exist, but not always in a reasonable form,” says Monty. “You just have to do your best and I’m so glad dad saw me do mine.”

In Australia more than 1500 people are on the organ donation waiting list, but in 2013 just 391 donated. For more information or to register visit donatelife.gov.au or in New Zealand visit donor.co.nz.

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