Puff, pant, gasp……”Secret agent man, secret agent man….they’ve given you a number, and taken away your name….” Puff, pant, gasp. I hear Johnny Rivers singing into my earbuds as I desperately try to catch my breath. It was only mile three and I had six more to slug through. True to my rookie status, I had started out of the gate guns blazing and now I was paying for it. Even though it was February, the Florida humidity felt like a wet blanket sitting on top of my chest.
I needed bigger ammo. I quietly gasped out my prayer to St Michael—-let’s face it, no battle is too small for the patron saint of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division (hooyah!). Whispering these words gave me the calm I needed to regulate my pace (and my pounding heart rate) and allowed my months of training to finally kick in…..feeling the secret agent vibe again…
“Hey gorgeous! High five!” It took me a moment to realize that the burly man running up beside me was talking to me—because after three miles, I am a loooong way from resembling a decent looking human being. He holds up his beefy hand and I practically have to jump up to give it a sweaty swat. He shoots me a grin and blazes past me hauling his considerable mass and leaving me in the dust. I only smile and keep going—-he was my number 24 high fiver. I had a big target on my back–literally. It said, “I beat cancer 8 months ago–give me a high five!”
It was February 2017 and I was running in the Gasparilla 15k with 7,000 of my closest friends. I had completed chemotherapy only eight months prior and finished surgery six months beforehand. It was the longest distance I had ever run, and I was running for my life.
I had managed to get myself to mile seven at a respectable 9:45 pace and then the infamous “wall” slammed into me. Usually runners talk about hitting the wall when they reach mile 24 of a full marathon but for someone like me, that wall would come much sooner. Then my angel appeared. I never learned her name—she looked like a Deb so that’s what I’ll call her. Deb looked to be in her late 50’s, early 60’s. She trotted up next to me and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck like a puppy. She looked at the now crumpled and battered sign on my back and said “Uh uh girl, you’re going to keep moving.”
At that point I didn’t have the energy to argue (especially since she still had her death grip on me). Time to suck it up buttercup. Deb stuck with me for those last two miles and whenever my pace started flagging, she just gave me the look that said “no excuses, keep going.” I finished those 15 kilometers and as I crossed the finish line, the tears started welling. By the time I got my bearings, Deb had disappeared in true angel style.
Here’s the thing—I hate running. Wait, let me amend that. I USED to hate running.
In my former life (ie before kids), I was fairly athletic. I always enjoyed sports and played on many teams including swimming, tennis, basketball, softball….my parents strongly encouraged fitness during my formative years. But I hated running. The Presidential Fitness Challenge always made me groan inside as a kid because of the dreaded one mile timed run. As far as I was concerned, if I had to run, it would be because there was a donut in front of me. Chocolate glazed…..
After baby number three and 40 pounds later, I realized there was literally no time for the gym. So every morning I would wake up after a “refreshing” two hour night’s sleep and begrudgingly tie on my running shoes. My husband and I would do errands with the kids and on the way home, he would drop me off a couple of miles away from the house (he was kind enough to slow the car to 5 mph before rolling me out) and I would run home. It was the bitter medicine I had to swallow to fit into my jeans again. Vanity, thy name is woman.
I kept up running after my fourth pregnancy. It was a chore. Something I just had to do to stay active…..zzzzz……..
Then came cancer. And chemo.
Ever seen the Rocky movies? You know the drill—-dude gets hit over and over and over. As a viewer, you want to tell the poor fool to just stay down and not get smashed again. But he keeps getting up. That’s chemo…..I would have an infusion every three weeks. Within 24 hours I would be flat on my couch and unable to even sit up for more than five minutes at a time. It was like descending into Dante’s Inferno one gruesome bolgia at a time.
This would last at least ten full, long days and then on day 11, I would start the slow uphill climb to being able to sit up, then walk around my home, then walk to the car…..and eventually make it to running 2 miles before the next treatment would come along (10 days later) and smash me back down again.
I would drop the kids off at school in the mornings and as I headed to my usual route, Sandra, Laura, and Luana would take turns “sloggin” with me. Sweet friends, I think they were concerned about my collapsing in someone’s backyard and wanted make sure I wouldn’t cause any trouble. Oh boy, do I owe them….
Running gave me a goal. If I could find the energy to run, I could find the energy to be with my kids. If I could run during chemo, then it meant that my body wasn’t going to give up on me. If I could run during chemo, then it meant that I would be able to run AFTER chemo was completed and that I would be able to get my life back.
How does this relate to my patients with limb loss?? Read on…..
“Oh wow, with that prosthesis, that person has an advantage and can run easier than the athletes with two legs….” This particular comment always makes me a cringe a little…..ok, a lot. I usually hear some variation of this especially when I go to a race where the occasional person with limb loss is competing with their impressive looking running blade.
Folks, you couldn’t be more mistaken.
I could talk to you about VO2 max and other “fancy” equations to show you what an amputee goes through on a daily basis. But I like to keep things simple (KISS rule). People with below knee amputations spend 9-20% more energy walking than a person with two biological legs. Those with above knee amputations spend 45-70% more energy. Even more impressive are bilateral amputees—they expend a whopping 300% more energy using their prostheses when compared to their “two legged” cohorts. To put it simply, an amputee who participates in a race had to “run” a race just to make it to the start line.
I see it in my patients all the time. The effort they have to put forward to just make it across the parallel bars (15′) is enough to leave them winded. Along with debilitating phantom pain, treating skin lesions that arise from prosthetic use, and the psychological whopper of living without a limb (or two or three)—this population also has to literally fight an uphill battle to become functional again.
It’s the Rocky scenario—-they get knocked down by losing a limb(s) whether before they are born or later in life, then they are knocked down by months of healing and oftentimes repeat surgeries, and finally, when they think they’re in the clear because they have a new leg, they get knocked down when they try to walk just a few feet and are left gasping for air. Puff, pant, gasp.
And they keep getting back up—they keep fighting. Time after time after time.
While I don’t consider myself an angel (I have a looong way to go to earn my wings), I like to see myself as a Deb or the burly guy. It is an honor to help people with limb loss get through even just a couple of those figurative miles of recovery. To assist them in regaining their ability to even walk across a room is a huge victory because of all the “mileage” they had to go through to get to that point. Teaching an amputee how to run……well shoot, that’s just icing on a really big cake. And I marvel each time it happens.
So I guess you could say I don’t hate running anymore (understatement of the year)—-I am grateful for the ability to run after what my body was subjected to for so many months. Even more so, I am thankful to share this joy with my patients as they cross their finish lines be it in the clinic or on the race course. As I see these patients reach their goals in physical therapy or observe the occasional amputee whiz by me on the road, I think to myself, “wow, I am in the company of an elite athlete.”
The “before” picture at Gasparilla 2017. The “after” picture with my family of angels.