“Next year’s the year I’m going to be out there running.”
I had told myself this annually while watching the New York City Marathon since moving to the city five years ago. Cheering on both friends and strangers alike, I watched amazed year after year as each runner continued his or her personal journey towards the race’s finish line in Central Park. Except that when the first Sunday in November would come around the following year, I would find myself in a familiar position as a spectator hearing the same voice in my head saying, “Next year’s the year.”
In late June, motivated by the sheer challenge of the feat, I committed to run the 47th New York City Marathon. Finally, next year was here.
The modern marathon is a 26.2 mile journey from starting line to finish line. The race is best classified as a journey not simply because of the physical distance traversed on race day, but because of the mental and emotional strength tested in the months of training prior to the race. Running a marathon has aptly become a symbol of human endurance and evidence of the power of the human spirit. Like every runner at the starting line on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that morning, I had been physically and mentally training for November 5, 2017 for months; in reality, my own personal journey had been preparing me for this day for years.
In December, 2010, I came home for winter break just before my last semester of college with what I thought was a typical flu virus. As my fever reached 104°, it became apparent my body was battling something far more serious than a normal virus. After spending a week at my local hospital, doctors had yet to determine a cause for the extreme symptoms I was displaying or reach a diagnosis when I crashed: I began to have difficulty breathing and was suffering organ failure. I was immediately rushed to the ICU and spent seven days intubated on a ventilator. During this week long period, doctors did everything they could to ensure my vital organs remained functioning properly to keep me alive. Unfortunately, I lost circulation to each of my four extremities and sustained extensive damage to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in my left foot. Since April, 2011, I have been a left below knee amputee.
When doctors initially informed me that they recommended amputation, the weight of the reality brought on a wave of emotions. I was shocked, angry, confused, and cried hysterically. My whole life I have played sports. I grew up playing baseball, soccer, and basketball then played football and baseball in high school. I even had the skill and good fortune to walk on the baseball team while at Villanova competing in the Big East Conference. As the doctor gave his recommendation, I knew my life would be entering uncharted territory. How difficult would the transition to my new life with an amputation be? How would others look and perceive me now that I had a noticeable physical disability? Perhaps most importantly, though, would I be able to enjoy the same active life I had enjoyed and thrived on up to this point in my life?
As a former baseball player, one of the most revered men in the game’s great history is legendary Yankee first baseman, Lou Gehrig. Gehrig is also famed for being forced into an early retirement due to the onset of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). As Gehrig formally retired on July 4, 1939, he made a brief speech in front of fans and former teammates gathered at Yankee Stadium. Paraphrasing his now immortalized words, Gehrig said, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
In the six years since my amputation, I have found that “The Iron Horse” was right; I do have an awful lot to live for. Doctors were eventually able to diagnose my symptoms as a rare autoimmune disorder known as Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). With the loving support of my family and friends, I completed a 40 week chemotherapy and steroid treatment protocol. By January, 2012, I was healthy and able to return to Villanova for my final semester and graduate. Pushed by a close circle of competitive friends and family, I quickly resumed the physically active lifestyle I initially wondered might be lost. Enriched by my faith, I soon had a new perspective on life and my inner strength.
One of the most positive influences in my new life as an amputee has been the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). CAF’s mission is clear: give those with the desire to live active, competitive lifestyles every opportunity to compete in the sports they love. After attending my first CAF running clinic in October 2012, I improved as a runner thanks to a grant from CAF and advice from other amputees in the community. I was a beneficiary of CAF’s 2012 grantee class when I received the running prosthetic blade I used to run multiple distance races including this year’s NYC Marathon. Over the last five years, I have become a fund-raiser and ambassador for CAF speaking to local groups in the New York area about the foundation and my journey. Thanks to the tremendous generosity and support of my friends and family, we raised over $15,000 for CAF in race pledges for running the marathon.
As I made my way through each of New York’s five boroughs that Sunday, I couldn’t help but reflect on my personal journey. From my sickest days in the hospital, to my first steps using a prosthetic and my final chemo session, to the rigors of the New York City Marathon, I have been fortunate to have the tremendous love and support of my family and friends with me every step of the way. Each experience has made me stronger, helped me find deeper conviction in my faith, and enriched both my mind and my heart. As the 19th century author Horace Bushnell said, “The more difficulties one has to encounter, within and without, the more significant and the higher in inspiration his life will be.”