A Runner’s Story:
Ericka grew up in southern Vermont. She was a year younger than me and a class behind me in school. She had a contagious grin, played field hockey and ended up at many of the same outdoor “bon fires” that I did. High school is a time of fuzzy memories, flashes of lots of people crammed into a car listening to Dire Straits, late night runs to Friendly’s for ridiculously large hot fudge sundaes, laughter and just a general sense of togetherness. Looking back I don’t think I ever had more than a 5 min conversation with Ericka which was completely normal for high school.
In November of 2009, Ericka collapsed and her heart stopped at mile 23 of the Philadelphia Marathon. Her story and road back are remarkable and have made a deep impression on me. It was while I was out visiting my best friend in Denver this past summer that Ericka’s story was passed on to me. I am passing it on now in hopes that it inspires and motivates someone else.
Ericka discovered a love for running in her 20’s during a marriage that needed to end. She would strap on her headphones and head for the trails where she could clear her head. She started running further and faster and decided to sign up for her first 5K. From then on she was hooked. She trained her way up and through a 10K, Half Marathon and then Marathon. She ran the Hartford, CT Marathon and several others and then qualified for the Boston Marathon. Ericka ran with her dad in several of the marathon’s. Her father was a doctor and also an avid runner.
The Philadelphia marathon was to be a big family affair and her father, older brother, mother and several other family members were taking in the train in to be on the sidelines. Ericka recounts the night before as being full of laughter, carbs and anticipation.
Her last memory of race day was of posing for a family photo in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30 in the morning. Her family was lined up near the end of the course, waiting for her to run by. They knew her average times and when ten min went by with no sight of her, they began to worry. At 30 min, Ericka’s mother was frantic.
Around mile 23, Ericka pitched forward suddenly and fell to the ground, hitting her head. Witnesses recount that she did not appear to try and brace her fall with her hands. At that exact same moment a nurse named Mary Kay Silverman was running by Ericka in the opposite direction. The marathon course is set up so that the runners essentially run in a loop. The front runners are heading back to the finish line while many other runners are still heading out to the midpoint where they will turn around. The course diverges from mile 17 to 21, away from the runners heading to the finish line. Had Ericka collapsed even two minutes earlier, Mary Kay would have been on a different path and not even within eye sight of her.
At first people thought that Ericka had fainted but Mary Kay knew it was cardiac related and immediately set to work to keep her blood circulating. She began CPR. The second amazing piece of this story is that Ericka fell only a few yards from one of the official medic tents, staffed with EMT’s, on the course. There were three total tents/stations along the route, the other two were at the beginning and midpoint of the race. The fact that the EMT’s were able to reach Ericka within two minutes of her collapse and shock her heart back into rhythm undoubtedly saved her life. She was transferred immediately to Hanneman Hospital. Once there, Ericka was put into an induced coma while doctors began to lower her body temperature in order to try and prevent swelling and brain damage. Four days later on Wednesday, Ericka woke up. Her first vision was of many faces peering down at her. One can only imagine the complete disorientation and confusion she felt. Ericka was told briefly that she had been in an accident. She went back to sleep for another 24 hours. These are all the facts, but facts don’t convey the whole story.
Inside those four days, Ericka’s family and fiancé lived hour by hour. Her younger brother moved a cot into her hospital room and slept there every night by her side. Her mother, could barely stand to see her shivering, as she knew that Ericka hated to be cold. She had to stop herself from putting blankets over Ericka and trying to warm her up. The family held a constant around the clock vigil.
After Ericka woke up, her mother recounted that her brain was moving very slowly. Ericka asked for her cell phone on Thursday and took about a half hour to type a two line text message. Someone could have typed it for her but she insisted on doing it herself.
The diagnosis was a congenital heart defect. It had been there since birth. It could have failed her at any time during those other five marathons, but she never felt dizziness, chest pressure or labored breathing. In the weeks that followed Ericka grew well enough to leave the hospital in PA and return home to MA. Her father helped to find one of the top doctors in congenital heart surgery and her corrective “open heart” procedure was scheduled for the beginning of February at Mass General Hospital.
Those five weeks of waiting were among the hardest weeks of Ericka’s life. She was essentially on modified bed rest at home. She could not go to work but worst of all, for someone who is a top athlete and long distance runner, she could not exercise. She felt fine and grew frustrated with the long days and time at home. Her fiancé’s mother came every day for four weeks to play Scrabble with Ericka and to keep her company.
The day of the surgery arrived and Ericka was terrified. Thoughts raced through her mind; maybe she had been saved by mistake and now she would not survive this surgery. She was sedated and then put under anesthesia and placed on a Heart/ Lung bypass machine. Ericka’s chest was opened up and the five hour long surgery began. It went off without a hitch and her heart was responding perfectly. The recovery began again in earnest.
As she began to heal physically, Ericka began to wrestle with the reality of what her life might be like going forward. She was 38 years old and the surgery had been a success but her cardiac doctor remained cautious and steadfast in his warning to her that she should not run again. So much of her self-identity was wrapped up in being a runner. She had the surgery with the hope that it would allow her to live a normal, active life. All of her cardiac stress tests came back beautifully, heart fully functioning and pumping blood perfectly.
Ericka was at a fork in the road. She could have accepted the doctor’s medical advice that she should not run again, or she could seek a second opinion. Ericka’s dad understood what running meant to her. He consulted other doctors around New England and found a specialist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital who would re-evaluate Ericka. She had more stress tests, again they looked great. The new doctor agreed to clear Ericka for running, only no marathons. She was given instructions on how to monitor her heart rate, run with a heart monitor and was placed on a Beta Blocker. It was summer of 2011 when Ericka received this news by phone that she could run again. She took several weeks to let it sink in.
Her family was on vacation a few weeks later and during a lull in the activity, her father quietly pulled her aside and asked if she wanted to take a few spins around the track nearby. They went together and ran side by side slowly. And it was hard. It did not feel good. It felt like she was running up hill and she was hyper aware of every beat her heart was making. They ran for ten minutes that day. In the weeks and months that followed, Ericka began to build her strength and endurance back up slowly. She ran only indoors, on a treadmill and in a gym that had a Defibrillator. She gradually increased her mileage. She entered a 5K and then a few more. Her latest triumph was the completion of the Disney Orlando half marathon in October. She ran the race with Mary Kay Silverman by her side. The two have become fast friends.
People may read this story and wonder if Ericka is taking undue risk. I see a woman who is choosing to live life on her own terms. None of us know how long we have and most of us forget to live each day to the fullest. Runners forget to appreciate their bodies and what it feels like to run injury free. Ericka believes that when your time is up, it’s up. It was just not her time.
Ericka and I spoke for two hours by phone this week. She graciously told me her story and even thanked me for taking an interest in it. Everyone has a story. When we slow down to listen, we might even find it enriches our lives.