His pain level was nine out of 10. Confined to his hospital bed, sweating and aching all over, he could hear his skin crackling, the result of gas gangrene inside his legs, caused by bacteria eating away at his muscle tissues.
Seventeen-year-old John Tartaglio was dying.
His diagnoses couldn’t keep up with his rapid decline. At first it was “just a virus,” then mononucleosis, then myositis — inflammation of the muscles — until the doctors discovered the flesh-eating bacteria. Doctors had to act quick, so Tartaglio underwent a surgery called debridement, which removed infected tissues. The doctors had to amputate both of his legs and cut a part of his left bicep.
Twenty-four hours after amputating his legs, Tartaglio woke up in his hyperbaric chamber, a vessel that provided his cells with oxygen. Doctors told him that he’d never walk again. Tartaglio, who graduated from Fairfield in 2009, almost believed his doctors — almost.
He recognized that adjusting to this change would take a while, but he felt that he owed it to his family, to his friends and to himself to make the most of his circumstances.
“I really felt like if I didn’t push myself and take ownership of getting myself strong again, no one else would,” Tartaglio wrote in his journal.
“I was lucky to be alive, and I reminded myself of that every day.”
True to his word, he showed his strength when he finished the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon five years later, becoming the first bilateral hip disarticulate to run it. These days, in addition to being an active triathlon and marathon participant, the Milford resident is a nationwide inspirational speaker, a business intern at Philips, a soon-to-be MBA graduate, a husband and a father.
Tartaglio, now 26, and fellow alum Andrew Chapin ‘09 chronicled his life story in a nonfiction book, “From Tragedy to Triumph.”
In November 2006, Chapin wrote an article for The Mirror about Tartaglio finishing the New York City Marathon’s handcycling division in 30th place out of 101 participants. They started hanging out, meeting through mutual friends.
Years later, Tartaglio reached out to Chapin about writing a nonfiction book; a fiction writer and a teacher at Thornton-Donovan School, Chapin saw the strength in Tartaglio’s story and couldn’t resist.
To help Tartaglio write the story and adopt his voice, Chapin shadowed him as he went on with his day-to-day life.
“He accomplishes the same thing that any other able-bodied person accomplishes, but just in a different way,” Chapin simply said.
In his motivational talks, Tartaglio usually sits in his wheelchair, contained, but his voice rings out. He tells people to pursue their goals no matter the circumstances.
“Anything is possible when it means enough to you,” he usually says. After his surgery, living as normal of a life as possible, despite what happened, had become his main goal.
With hope as his “driving force,” Tartaglio entered physical therapy at Gaylord Rehabilitation Facility in Wallingford, Conn., and later at Rehabilitation Associates. He had to relearn how to balance himself again, with gravity working against him, and how to sit up by himself. He learned how to walk with prosthetic legs. He wanted to be strong once more. Sometimes his efforts ended in disappointments, but they didn’t matter as long as he eventually succeeded, Tartaglio said.
Proving medical professionals wrong, Tartaglio returned to school, walked across the stage and received his diploma from Joseph A. Foran High School in Milford.
His transition to Fairfield was like many other peers’ experience: hesitant.
“When [Tartaglio] and I were at Fairfield together, no one really [acted] in any way different towards him,” Chapin added.
And whenever he did get certain looks, like from curious children, Tartaglio would “smirk and wave and completely diffuse the situation,” Michael Lynch ‘09 said of his best friend.
In 2001, Lynch had met Tartaglio, whom he calls “John T” or “J.T.,” when they were on opposing football teams, Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Conn. and Foran High School, respectively. Lynch transferred to Foran his sophomore year and a friendship was made – and continues today.
Lynch and Tartaglio were roommates and best friends throughout all four years at Fairfield — from Regis, to Gonzaga, to Townhouse 135, and ending on the beach.
Tartaglio wanted to continue strengthening his body, but after finding the RecPlex inaccessible for his disability, he approached Mark Spellman, who was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for athletes, and asked if he could use the Athletic Center. To Tartaglio’s surprise, Spellman offered to personally train him — promising that he’d be pushed to the limits like any other athlete with two legs. Some athletes might balk at the vigorous schedule Spellman had set, but this was a challenge that Tartaglio gladly took on.
“I wanted to prove to [Spellman] that regardless of my disability that I could push myself like the athletes he trained on a daily basis,” Tartaglio said. “Physical training was a big part of what he did, but the friendship we developed was just as great.”
Lynch would have a 9 a.m. class, but he remembered Tartaglio waking up to train at 6 a.m. “He tried to be quiet,” Lynch said, laughing.
All the while, Tartaglio managed to balance his training, his courses and his blossoming inspirational speaking business.
Swinging into Challenges
At first triathlons — races with biking, swimming and running — were foreign to Tartaglio. He swam at the Madison Jaycees while his physical therapist Jim biked and another PT, Jackie, ran.
The next big step came in sophomore year when he agreed to handcycle the New York City Marathon. He finished after two hours, 12 minutes and 12 seconds.
The end of his nonfiction book led up to Nov. 1, 2009: his chance to run the NYC Marathon using a prosthetic. People walked patiently beside him, flashing their lights so that he could see the ground below. Hitting 22 miles at 7 p.m., he continued on a path while taxis drove by. A man encouraged him: “Good job, man. Keep going.”
At the last 100 feet, around 10 p.m., people cheered and clapped from the sidelines. Finally, finishing at 15 hours and 59 minutes, he arrived at the finish line — but didn’t cross. He let the ribbon fall to the ground. For him, the point wasn’t to cross that particular line; his accomplishments far surpassed that physical signifier.
“It really is a transcendent moment in his journey,” Chapin said.
The Present and the Future
“While it is tough to grasp for some, I truly wouldn’t take back what happened to me,” Tartaglio said. “While what happened was devastating, clearly life-changing and put my family and friends through tough times, the positive experiences that resulted far surpassed the negatives.”
“He had a really good core around him who helped him overcome adversity,” Lynch said. So many people stood by him and believed in him, including his family, his closest friends, his physical therapists Erik, Jim and Dave, Spellman and training partners, Chris and Brett.
With an MBA waiting for him in May, Tartaglio plans to become an internal consultant and help organizations improve their overall performance. His inspirational speaking background will carry over into his next career.
Since the marathon, two events have surpassed his accomplishments: becoming a husband in 2012 and a father nine months later.
“[My daughter] is nine months, but she thinks I’m awesome,” he said.
Like Chapin and many others, Lynch is astonished by his best friend’s ability to juggle so much. Last time they got together was a month ago, but their social time usually depends on whether or not Tartaglio can get a sitter for his daughter.
For his and Chapin’s upcoming appearance at the bookstore, Tartaglio said: “The goal is to help people take away something that can have a positive effect on their lives. What the exact takeaway will maybe different from person to person, but people need to know that anything is possible when it means enough to you.”
Tartaglio and Chapin will do a book signing at the Fairfield University Bookstore, 1499 Post Road, on Sunday, April 6, from 1 to 4 p.m.