In more ways than one, Astena Marsh has given her dad strength. Allan Marsh, a single father of seven and grandfather of six, will step on stage Saturday at the 2017 Atlantic Classic bodybuilding championships at Casino New Brunswick in Moncton. The 15-year-old Astena, his youngest child and the reason he's in the Sculpt Transformation portion of the show, was born with a congenital heart block. She can't get better, Marsh said.
"The timeline is anything from today to a maximum of two years. But she wants to see her dad on stage. She's going to be there, God willing."
A native of Maple Ridge, B.C., who lives in Oromocto, Marsh served in the military for just under 15 years. Stationed in Alberta, he did five tours and ranked as high as master corporal. He was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder during those years.
"But at that time it wasn't recognized as PTSD," he said. "They used to mark it down as chronic depression. Mine stemmed from injuries, horrific things I saw and couldn't unsee."
Marsh, 51, made a trip east about 20 years ago to visit his sister.
"I fell in love with the area and haven't gone back. I thought it was a great place to raise kids. It was quiet."
It wasn't always peaceful for Marsh, though, who had ballooned to 320 pounds by early 2015.
"I was -- and still am -- fighting my PTSD and I was in an unhappy, unhealthy marriage. I was sticking it out for the kids."
But on Jan. 7, 2015, his ex-wife -- Astena's mom -- "walked out, leaving me with three of the kids still at home. A little while after that, Astena came to me in tears," Marsh said.
"I asked what was wrong and she looked me in the eye and said, 'Dad, you're all I've got left. I don't want to lose you and I'm worried about you. You need to lose some weight.' "
Marsh, tough as a boot heel, broke down. He wrapped his meaty forearms around his daughter, held her tight and promised her he would.
"I took that to heart -- totally," said Marsh, who started working out on his own, then joined a gym.
He had shed 60 pounds, in fact, "when my world was rocked" on July 11, 2016. Astena, who had been on a four-day visit with her mom, was in the IWK Hospital In Halifax fighting for her life.
"I got the call at 9:15 in the morning ... my little baby was on life support," Marsh said, his eyes glistening. "They told me I probably wouldn't make it to the hospital in time. They were preparing to fly her to Toronto but they weren't sure she would survive it."
Astena, who will turn 16 on May 9, had a heart transplant when she was 3 1/2 and "had zero complications until she was 15," Marsh said.
"Everything was going perfect. She went from a happy, healthy, extremely active and athletic kid -- volleyball, soccer, basketball, track and field -- to being on full life support."
Astena spent some 10 months in hospital beds in Halifax, Saint John and SickKids in Toronto, undergoing a mind-numbing "26 heart and bleeding-related surgeries."
"She was in a coma, not even an induced one, at SickKids for about two months," Marsh said. "They didn't think she'd ever wake up."
The scariest day came on Aug. 20. Her aorta ruptured when she was still in her coma.
"You're usually dead within seconds," Marsh said. "She basically bled to death but they revived her. The blood she received was the equivalent of an adult bleeding out between 20 and 30 times."
Astena had successful surgery for an artificial aorta, but the prognosis was grim. "She suffered brain injury and her kidneys have failed completely," Marsh said. "She picked up a fungal infection while in the hospital. That's gone into her brain, as well, and it's eventually going to kill her."
Astena, who's in and out of a wheelchair, was released from hospital on April 9 to be more comfortable at home in Oromocto.
"Since we've come back, she's gone critical twice," Marsh said. "She wants to be home. She doesn't want to die in the hospital."
And she keeps fighting. "She's an inspiration because everytime I get sore doing something, I think of the pain that she goes through and mine's nothing.
"The hardest thing I lift is her syringe for pain medication. She's on morphine almost 24/7 now."
Marsh says Astena is "in my thoughts constantly."
"I'll get on the bike doing my cardio and sometimes have to pull my hood over my head, because I'm crying so hard."
Astena tries to comfort her dad.
"Her spirits and faith are amazing," he said. "She's no longer eligible for any other transplants. She knows she's going to pass away but she still talks about what she wants to do. She wants to be a phlebotomist, she wants to get married, she wants to have kids.
"She knows that will never happen ...."
With the help of Sculpt health coach Allison Hill, Marsh is a muscular 197 pounds "and the healthiest I've been in my entire life."
The bespectacled Astena watches her father like a hawk, making sure he sticks to his six-days-a-week workout regimen.
"When I went to the hospital, she would poke me in the abs and say, 'Uh, uh, uh, you didn't go to the gym, did you' and kick me out to go do my workout. If I try to cheat with a snack at home, she'll say, 'Dad, if you eat that, I'll tell Allison.' "
"He's an absolute workhorse," Hill said. "He never complained, never questioned my instruction...just worked. It's all for her.
"He's said that from the beginning. The process to the stage is all about Astena," Hill said.
Marsh agonizes over the irony of his unfair situation. "Astena asked me to do this because she didn't want to lose me. And two years later, it's her that we're going to lose."
He cherishes the bond he has with his "baby girl."
"We talk about anything and everything. But some days, she just wants me to hold her and cuddle her, which I'm more than happy to do."
Original article from Daily Gleaner