Extraordinary comeback by double cancer survivor

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Giovanna Imbesi with boyfriend and cancer survivor Bob Garbutt following the Upper Township bay race STRATHMERE – Last December was a cold month for Bob Garbutt, and not just because the first of what was a long winter chill for all of us was settling into the region. It was during that time that he began the first of eight rounds of chemotherapy for an aggressive form of lymphoma, even more aggressive than the first bout of a related kind of cancer he beat about a decade ago.

Then in March, he underwent a stem cell transplant.

So to see Garbutt competing in the Upper Township Six-Mile Bay Row Monday evening behind the Deauville Inn, well, it was nothing short of extraordinary.

Garbutt, rowing with his girlfriend, Giovanna Imbesi, crossed the finish line in second place among mixed doubles crews and 27th overall out of 42 boats. They – and more specifically Garbutt – however, were the real winners of the race.

As former lifeguards with the Ocean City Beach Patrol, Garbutt and Imbesi had known each other for a long time. But they didn’t begin dating until the fall, when Garbutt was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for one of his many treatments. Imbesi, a graduate of the University of Southern California with a master’s degree from Penn in public health, works at the hospital. She found out Garbutt was there and went to see him.

“He wound up getting me a Halloween card, and then at some point we went out just as friends and it went from there,” Imbesi said.

Garbutt, 47, a Ventnor native and 1986 graduate of Atlantic City High School who went on to play football and compete for the crew team at Princeton, was a past winner of the Upper Township bay race. In fact, he won in 1998 with his brother, Matt, who finished first again Monday evening with Dylan Kosten. Garbutt and Imbesi, a rower in high school and college but never before in a Van Duyne lifeguard boat, decided to set a goal over the winter while Garbutt was in the throes of a battle for his life.

“We wanted to race together as a mixed doubles crew,” recalled Garbutt, a senior compliance manager for Merrill Lynch who previously spent 17 summers on the beach patrol. “We thought it would be fun to do the Deauville row together, so we kind of circled this on the calendar. It was definitely something to shoot for.”

The cancer, chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant not only threatened Garbutt’s life, but it also prevented him from training over the non-summer months like many of the top South Jersey rowers.

“I had the stem cell transplant March 14 and it took my immune system down to about zero,” Garbutt said. “I got pneumonia, and I had a rough go of it. The first time I rowed on the ergometer I thought I was going to pass out. I finally started to get my stamina back in May. I knew I had to get to a certain fitness level to be able to compete in this.”

But there he was on Monday, with his girlfriend in the boat with him, finishing to some of the biggest cheers of the event from those who knew of Garbutt’s battle.

“Just being here is a victory for me,” Garbutt said. “When I got diagnosed again last September, it was coin flip whether I was going to live or die. I had the thoughts and prayers of a lot of people in South Jersey and in the rowing community behind me. I got a lot of love and prayers from a lot of people. That, and everything (Imbesi) did for me got me through this.

Being able to be here today is a win for me. You never know what might happen from one year to the next but I’d love to be here again next year.”

Imbesi, 33, an Ocean City native and graduate of Holy Spirit High School, fought back tears following the race.

“I had to stop rowing at USC (because of a debilitating arm condition) but after I saw him go through everything he went through, what I had was nothing to me,” she said. “He’s gone through a lot worse. When we were out there, watching him row, I just somehow didn’t even feel it in my arms.

“I’d never competed in one of these kinds of races before. I did whatever he told me to do out there. I just listened to him. I trusted him.”

Garbutt, who received hugs, pats on the back and smiles from fellow rowers and friends following the race, was also extremely emotional at the finish.

“I didn’t now if I’d be here,” he said, his eyes watering as he paused for a moment before continuing. “It definitely helped that I got my strength and stamina back faster than I thought. That made it possible. Every day’s a gift.”

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