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Clarke Community Rallies for Friend and Former Firefighter

By Clarke News  |  August 15, 2023
Garland (right) poses with his surgeon following his double lung and kidney transplants.
Garland (right) poses with his surgeon following his double lung and kidney transplants.

Clarke University Head Softball Coach Garland Shirley ’23M felt the love of his community this spring as he underwent double lung and kidney transplants at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  

“According to my doctor and the team at the Mayo Clinic, I am only the second person in their system to receive a second double lung transplant,” Garland said. “Because the lungs require such major surgery, they are still researching if a second transplant is an option for patients. It’s a delicate balance between being sick enough to need the surgery and strong enough to survive it. I am hopeful that my experience could lead to new opportunities for others.” 

Garland received his first lung transplant in 2017, years after sustaining an injury during an ice water rescue training exercise as a firefighter and paramedic with the city of Des Moines, Iowa.  

“During a training exercise in 2009, I aspirated ice water into my lungs. The department physician thought it caused pneumonia. I continued to serve with my department but found that climbing stairs in full gear was proving more difficult with each call,” Garland said. “After more testing, doctors realized the ice water produced scarring. Essentially, it caused frostbite to the lower lobes of my lungs. As the lungs tried to heal, they would swell and cause more scarring and damage, which compounded for years. Eventually the lung function was so severe, a transplant was the only viable option.  That is when they found a donor match for me.” 

A Recovery That Never Really Ends

Recovery from a lung transplant is an intensive process and one that Garland said never really ends. Though he had regained much of his physical strength by the time he began coaching at Clarke in 2018, Garland still had to take daily anti-rejection medications so his immune system would not attack the lungs as a foreign object. Yet these medications take a toll on other parts of the body, especially the kidneys. 

“In November of 2022, my team at Mayo had prescribed a new medication that was less damaging to my kidneys, but my body reacted poorly. My immune system started to reject the lungs. That’s what necessitated the lung and kidney transplant this spring,” Garland said. “I thought I was going in for a check-up and it turned into emergency hospitalization that would last for months.” 

Garland said it was a blessing and a curse to have been through the process before. Knowing what to expect did not make the wait for a donor match any easier. Thankfully, he had the support of his mother, his wife, Angie, his children, and the Clarke community.  

When I had my initial transplant while working in Des Moines, the community had embraced me, but it was nothing compared to the outpouring of support at Clarke. It motivated me on those days when it was hard to keep going. I wanted to be able to thank each person face-to-face, although that would be nearly impossible with all the people who reached out and continue to support me. It was overwhelming in a truly awesome way.

Garland Shirley
A Community of Support

One group he could always rely on for support was the softball team. It became a running joke with the hospital staff that if he had his computer open and a game was on, they would turn around and come back later. Even from the Mayo Clinic, he was active in his players’ lives with frequent calls and texts with words of encouragement or suggestions gleaned from game video. In turn, the players provided support and kindness, even from miles away. 

Beyond the team, Garland said he received an untold number of cards, snacks, books, and other items that made his stay at the Mayo Clinic bearable, including the three months of recovery, physical therapy, and monitoring in The Gift of Life House in Rochester after surgery.  

Garland Shirley is accompanied by his family as he receives a diploma from Interim President Fletch Lamkin.

Garland Shirley (center, left) is accompanied by his family as he accepts his Master of Business Administration from Interim President Fletch Lamkin.

He also continued his studies with Clarke’s Master of Business Administration program, both as an investment in himself and to demonstrate to his children, his athletes, and others the importance of education. Although he was still in recovery and could not attend the May commencement ceremony, the Clarke community honored him with a special recognition during CU Conference, the welcome back event for all faculty and staff. His family was also invited to attend.

“I for one, was not going to miss the opportunity to shake Garland’s hand,” said Interim President Fletch Lamkin. “He is an important part of the Clarke community and we are honored to be able to celebrate with him after all he has overcome.” 

With a new lease on life, he tries to pay it forward. He regularly speaks to area organizations on the importance of organ donation. He is also an advocate for Iowa Service Dogs, a non-profit that places service dogs specifically to Police, Fire, and EMS professionals. This is where his own service dog and four-legged softball fan, Smitty came from. Garland is also ready to give back to the Clarke community that stood by him through it all. 

One of the things I love about Clarke is the sense of family and as I return to campus, I want to be more intentional in that, to create that positive culture and build it across athletics and all of campus. After this experience, I feel like I have a greater purpose. Yes, I want to get back on the field and win softball games, but more than that I want to be a force for good on this campus and in this community.

Garland Shirley