By Elizabeth Zinno Ratta
I have always been inspired by runners’ stories and the common thread that runs through them of overcoming hardships, persevering and the running community itself. I hope that by sharing my story, someone might be able to grasp on to a piece of my journey and it may provide them with inspiration to continue their own.
In March, 2018 I went for a routine physical and mentioned to my provider that I was getting bad headaches behind my left eye. Luckily, she ordered an MRI and it revealed a left MCA (middle carotid artery) brain aneurysm. The next 2.5 months involved multiple appointments with my neurosurgeon and additional testing (CT angiogram and cerebral angiogram) to determine the best action to take with my aneurysm. Those weeks were filled with uncertainty and fear. I felt like I was at the top of a hill on a roller coaster and desperately wanted to get off but couldn’t. Many times I felt alone. It takes a conscious effort to still find joy and hope when living with a life-threatening condition – like having a bomb in your head that can rupture at any moment. After the additional tests I had, it was determined that clipping would be the best option due to the shape and location of my aneurysm.
Luckily, my surgery was a success. I lost no cognitive function, had no bleeding and the entire aneurysm was able to be clipped. The recovery was intense. It felt like my skull was too tiny for my brain. I was exceedingly exhausted. I would wake up and eat breakfast and then need to go back to sleep because that was too exhausting. Even getting a shower was overwhelming.
I recognize my great fortune was being surrounded by family and friends who supported me. My husband was and is my anchor, my kids showered me with love, and my parents and niece came from out of town to help. My local sister watched my kids for every appointment. My other sister, other family members, and dear friends sent words of encouragement and gifts. I thought a lot about people having to go through this experience and not having the same kind of support.
At one point, I remember my 6- and 3-year-old coming into the bedroom where I was resting and I vowed to do something to show them that human beings are built to overcome hardship. That you can be weak and exhausted with 32 sutures across your head and rise up and overcome. I decided right then that I wanted to run a race as a symbol of perseverance.
I vividly remember my first outdoor run post-surgery. It was winter and about 20 degrees. I was running by the river in our town and it just felt so good to be alive. I ran 2.5 miles that day and cried for most of it. I was surrounded by nature, the cold air felt so good in my lungs and I felt so grateful to be alive.
I started running regularly about a year and a half after my surgery. Just as I was getting steady in my runs a big snowstorm hit our area. My husband, always my greatest support, drove through the snowstorm to buy me a treadmill because he knew how important running had become to me.
I am a solitary runner. I find that runners do it because it makes them feel connected to something greater than themselves, whether it’s a higher power, a lofty goal, to benefit a charity. For me, running makes me feel close to my ancestors, close to God and fills me with gratitude to be alive.
Over the summer, I was thinking a lot about my grandma who had an aneurysm in the early 1970s but suffered much more greatly than I did. I thought a lot about how her suffering served a huge purpose in that if it weren’t for my grandma, my PCP likely wouldn’t have ordered the MRI. I also thought a lot about people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and about how Black and Hispanic people and women suffer brain aneurysms at much greater rates. As I thought of all of these things, I approached The Bee Foundation which is an organization that works to increase brain aneurysm awareness and provide funding for research.
I asked them if I could start a grant (which I would fundraise for) that would solely benefit the Black and Hispanic population and women and fund a Black, Hispanic and/or female researcher. I’m thrilled they said yes and so the Rita Skertich Research Grant was born, named for my grandma who is the unsung hero of my own story.
On my 2-year brain surgery anniversary I set out in my town to run a solo half marathon. It was forecast to be very hot and humid so I set my alarm early. When I woke up in the darkness, I could hear the rain pouring down. I definitely thought about crawling back under the covers, but then I thought about all the people who can no longer run…because they didn’t survive their brain aneurysm, because they have deficits from it, or because of the color of their skin. So I got up and by the time I got ready the rain had stopped. I ran throughout our town making frequent stops back at my house for fuel, where at 6 am my 8-year-old son had set up a chair in the yard to cheer for me. I didn’t set any speed records that day, but I was filled with pride for how far I had come and the fact that I showed my 2 sons that the human spirit can overcome hardships. My 2 sons cheered for me as I finished the half with a handmade sign in hand. There are very few moments in my life that top that.
This past summer, I developed an open wound in my forehead as a result of the titanium plates in my head becoming infected. I had to undergo a 2nd surgery to remove 2 titanium plates and 6 screws (I can now definitively say I had a few screws loose haha!). I realized how much I learned from my first surgery when I realized I would need a second because my reaction was very different. I instantly just accepted this as part of the recovery process and that while no one wants to have surgery it was a necessity. All the cliches are true that we must live each day to the fullest and with gratitude and that we must live for something greater than ourselves.
Strava recently posted a quote by Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does…Sport can create hope where there once was only despair.”
Thank you for reading my story. If you’re able, please consider a donation to the Rita Skertich Research Grant, keep smiling and keep moving forward. We’re all in this together.
Elizabeth Zinno Ratta
Elizabeth has been happily married to the love of her life, Jeremy for 13 years (together for 18). She has 2 incredible sons ages 9 and 6 who always get her to live life to the fullest each day and fill her with gratitude and pride. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with Master’s degrees in Public Health and Social Work. She works per diem as a hospital social worker, enjoys spending time outdoors in Vermont with her family and deeply values her family and friends who give to her so generously. She is very grateful to the Los Angeles running community who despite living 3,000 miles away are her greatest running inspiration. While she loves her new home of Vermont, half of her heart will always be in her hometown of Pittsburgh where her parents, sister, cousins, and niece still live.