08 August 2010

Loyal To My Lifesaver

Ed Note: I’ve promised more stories from my club’s recent race, and I promise, I will get there. Meanwhile, August 7th has come around again. I’ve written before about what happened on that date, twenty-nine years ago. But with my sister fighting a courageous fight against cancer, showing how a positive attitude toward one’s own care (and life in general) can inspire and carry us through the tough times, it’s all the more relevant to tell the story again in more depth. I recently was asked to write an inspirational piece on running for a friend’s forthcoming book, and my selection of a topic was easy. I present that piece here. Fight on, sis. You’re showing us how it’s done.

It’s simple, really. Running saved my life. Dramatically. Someone, or in this case something, saves your life, and you ought to stay loyal to it. I didn’t, and running had to save my life again – not quite as dramatically the next time, but really, it did, again. This time I’ve learned. Running is my friend. I will stay loyal as long as I can.

Truth is, running had already made my life before it saved it. I was the geeky kid, the nerd, the one everyone taunted and teased, the klutz with no athletic ability. It didn’t help that I had the emotional control of a tornado till middle school. I had the respect of the adult world, but without single a cool factor in my column, I was hopeless amongst my peers. But in high school, I found my calling on the roads, the trails, and the track. A natural endurance. A tolerance for pain. An urge-to-kill competitiveness, as one of my coaches used to call it. A path to bring a little victory to the old Spartan Blue & Gold, a school that sorely needed it. Of course I was still a geeky kid, a nerd, and a klutz, but as a runner, I grew up, and gained some respect by the time high school ran its course. On my way out the door, the world stood at my feet with great plans and opportunities.

And then it all went away – almost – if not for running.

People don’t get the flu in August, but I did. Maybe it was working three jobs, keeping up a social life, and running most every night at 1 AM when my best running buddy got off his second-shift job. Most likely it was dumb luck, since it turned out it wasn’t the flu.

After two days of feeling pretty down I awoke on a Friday morning, the seventh of August, 1981, feeling pretty good. Nevertheless, I elected to call in sick again that day. Might as well rest up, it’s Friday, they can live without me, I’m just a summer temp anyway. Back to bed for a nap at 7:30, mom’s off to work, I’ll be fine snoozing alone, enjoy it, college arrives in a short month.

A mere hour later I was jarred from slumber by a freight train derailment. The real train tracks were a mile from my house, but this train was in my head. Quite the wreck. Unimaginable pain. And it got worse when I lay back down. That told me something was really wrong. Enough lucidity to make the phone call. Mom, something’s wrong. Not enough lucidity to realize she’d hung up to call the doctor and was trying to call back. Still holding the phone in agony at the kitchen table when the neighbor came banging on the door to find out why the line was still busy.

Haze setting in. Fortunate to live in a town small enough that she’s home from work in ten minutes, we’re at the doctor’s office fifteen later. Lucky as hell to see a doctor who gets the right hunch the first time, after all, not like he sees spinal meningitis every day. Remember hearing, “No time for an ambulance, drive him to the hospital now, and don’t stop for red lights.” A crash team waiting for me at the door. Enough brainpower to crack with them that I must be really sick since they’re not making me sign any forms, but not enough to care about the pain of the immediately administered spinal tap on arrival. People tell me they hurt. I didn’t notice. Then, nothing.

Elapsed time: Feeling pretty good to deadly coma, about three hours. Ponder that. Three hours. Of course, there are plenty of things that will kill us instantly. A heart attack. A bullet. An asteroid the size of Chicago. Still, there’s something uniquely frightening about that three hour span. We tend to think in terms of instant death or slow decline. We don’t think much about the middle ground; it is foreign to us. Death in a span of three hours strikes an odd nerve.

The end of the story is that I’m still here. The recovery was long, far longer than a couple days in the ICU, a week in the hospital, and a month of recuperation. Effects lingered for close to a year. But I’m still here. Plenty of people contributed to the end of the story, all worthy of lifelong thanks. To this day I don’t know who that doctor was who played the hunch and got it right when minutes counted. Twenty five years later I tried to find out, but couldn’t. He saved my life. The crash team saved my life. The rest of the staff saved my life. Mom, of course, saved my life. Bacterial meningitis was at that time about 90% fatal, I was told (today’s drugs had dropped that to about 50-60%, still pretty scary). I was oddly honored to learn that I had generated my very own county-wide public heath alert.

But in the aftermath, the doctors summed it up very neatly and succinctly. Without the physical conditioning from my running, I wouldn’t have made it. They left no doubt about it.

Simple. Not running, not writing this. Running saved my life.

That part was simple. But life never is. Recuperation plus the onset of college made me drift away from my lifesaving friend. A little here, a little there, a little less next year. A decade later I was still cycling and hiking but not running. Another decade later the cycling had dropped away. The skinny kid was still pretty fit compared to the American Couch Potato, but frankly, had acquired a bit of pudge. Twenties became thirties became forties became the day I realized my legs didn’t feel very good anymore. Dr. Google, who has no bedside manner, suggested all sorts of mean nasty ugly things that could be happening. It was time to be saved again. I came back to my old friend.

This latest time it wasn’t a narrow escape from death. It wasn’t running in the fire turnout gear hauling me from the burning building of imminent death. But running came to my rescue again, replacing the start of my decline with the start of my midlife fitness triumph. Five years, twenty-five pounds, eight thousand miles and eleven marathons later, I am saved again.

People never stop telling me how running will kill me: death by joint degeneration, death by traffic, death by heart attack because they heard about that one guy out of thirty thousand who collapsed at Boston this year. They’re not entirely wrong. After all, running nearly did kill me a few marathons back. But I’m willing to give it that opportunity. Something will kill me someday, and if it is running, it will be because it running has earned it, because running has saved me, because I literally owe my life to running. And besides, what a way to go when the time comes.

Every August I remember the day I didn’t die. And I remind myself of what saved my life. I need to stay loyal to my live-saving friend.

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