By Sarah Curiel
“I would never run a marathon.”
I said this many times quite confidently throughout my life; including multiple occasions with my former patient, Wendy Vallejos, and her family. And yet, less than one year after meeting this incredible woman, I have now successfully completed my first marathon. It’s truly remarkable what you can do if you put your mind to it, and Wendy is an amazing example of this.
During my final summer of physical therapy school, I had a 6-week clinical rotation in the neurologic intensive care unit (ICU) at Keck Medical Center of USC. I will be the first person to admit I cannot handle things like needles or open wounds, so I was definitely nervous to be placed in a hospital setting; much less such a medically involved area. I still remember chart reviewing last summer for an upcoming new patient on my schedule, Wendy Vallejos. As a physical therapy student, you are always striving to make a difference in the lives of your patients, but I had no idea how much of an impact both Wendy and her family were about to make on my own life.
Wendy had just woken from a 2-week medically induced coma she was placed in following a subarachnoid hemorrhage; a stroke resulting in massive bleeding throughout the brain. She initially came to Keck due to a ruptured brain aneurysm, but during the subsequent surgery an unexpected second aneurysm also ruptured, leading to the necessity of the medically induced coma. She still had multiple remaining aneurysms as well. As you can likely tell, this is a very serious and complex medical history, and I was very grateful my clinical instructor (CI) was there to help me navigate all the different facets of her care.
Wendy was the first patient I had ever treated who was intubated. In addition to the tube keeping her airways open, and the numerous standard lines and wires to monitor vital signs, she also had an EVD (extraventricular drain) in place to remove excess fluid from her brain. Her chart indicated she was still paralyzed on the left half of her body. When I first walked into her room it was challenging to see the person behind the wires, tubes, and lines connecting her to various machines. But by the end of that first day, I was so much better able to connect with the woman behind the medical diagnosis.
Wendy had so many cards, signs, and pictures in her room, as well as a continual rotation of her family members. I remember reassuring one of her sisters during that first day that she was going to get better, and since Wendy couldn’t talk yet, this is how I first discovered a lot about her. She was a marathon runner, she worked with kids, she loved to travel, she had pets, her whole family runs together, her daughter had just finished her first half-marathon. “I ran a half-marathon once,” I told them. I was just trying to make conversation, but I had no idea how much deeper this would go.
That first day our goal was to help Wendy sit up in bed and then stand. It required four people. After we left my CI told me, “she is going to do so well”. I originally assumed that my CI had a different definition of “so well”, or that it was more of an “all things considering, she will do so well”. But I’m so happy to say that Wendy far exceeded my expectations.
In the days and weeks that followed, Wendy progressed to standing, walking, and navigating obstacles independently. It was amazing to watch her improve so quickly. We celebrated when she was finally able to walk down the hallway without us hovering right next to her. She was then discharged from the ICU and was able to transition downstairs into the acute rehabilitation unit (ARU). I was lucky enough to continue to go down and see her several times while she was working with my classmate and his clinical instructors.
One month after her initial physical therapy evaluation, Wendy was already running on a treadmill in rehab. “I’m going to run the LA Marathon next year,” Wendy told us matter-of-factly. I remember thinking, wow that’s crazy, but amazing! Props to her!
“We’re going to run it with you!” my classmate enthusiastically announced on the spot. My initial reaction to this was umm… no, no we aren’t. You guys can go for it, but there is no way I am running that far. And I told them this. Repeatedly. However, they didn’t take no for an answer. Right before she was discharged from Keck, I finally agreed to run with them in honor of Wendy. I realized that if she was dedicated enough to run 26.2 miles after relearning how to stand, walk, and run, I truly had no excuse.
I have always been pretty competitive, athletic, and up for a challenge. However, I had never even considered running a marathon. I was a competitive gymnast from middle school through college. I love skills requiring short bursts of strength and power rather than endurance. I began running recreationally in undergrad but I’m naturally a sprinter, so when I first started, a 2-mile run was “long distance”. A few years later in PT school, several classmates had talked me into running a half-marathon with them, in place of one of the girls who had recently gotten sick. This was 5 days before the race. But I did it! I remember finishing the half and thinking there is literally no way that I would want to “go around again”. But apparently, I just didn’t have the right motivation yet.
A few weeks after she was discharged, I met up with Wendy, her family, and fellow aneurysm-survivor-and-marathoner Kathy Nguyen for a walk around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Wendy told me that she had a secondary surgery planned for December 2017, and her doctor said that her blood pressure wouldn’t be stabilized enough for the 2018 LA Marathon. She then asked me if instead of running it with her I would run it for her. I couldn’t say no, even though my classmate from Keck was also unable to run this year. Somehow, even though I was the least willing initially, I was now totally committed. It was a very odd but empowering feeling.
Training for the marathon was definitely the hardest part. Luckily, one of my classmates had just made a training plan for the 2018 Boston Marathon, and she made me one as well. Between class, clinic, and running, my last semester of PT school definitely flew by. I distinctly remember waking up one Saturday at 6am to meet a local running group. It was 37˚ outside and they were going to run 22 miles. I looked in the mirror thinking, “I’m not a distance runner. I’m not a morning person. I don’t like the cold. What is happening?”. I planned on running 20 miles and then walking the last 2. As many of my friends predicted, that didn’t happen; I ran all 22 miles. Everyone there was so happy and encouraging and energetic; their energy was contagious.
The day before the marathon, while myself and two other classmates were picking up our race day packets, was when it finally felt real. I was getting pre-competition day butterflies. I hadn’t felt like that since my gymnastics days, and it surprised me that I was feeling this way now. But I realized that it was because I had trained hard for this, putting in countless hours and miles. I had time goals. I had an amazing inspiration. And I was finally going to do it.
Compared to (and because of) my training, the actual marathon wasn’t as hard as I anticipated. It was so motivating having so many spectators cheering you on the whole way. Wendy, her daughter, and one of her sisters were there halfway through at mile 13. Some of my friends surprised me by showing up at mile 20. And my classmate-turned-coach even ran the last few miles with me. She told me to make my last two miles for Wendy, and was so proud when it made me speed up, even though I was already farther than I had ever ran before. I ended up achieving both my own goal of “survival” and my coach’s goal of under 4 hours; I completed 26.2 miles in 3 hours 54 minutes and 2 seconds. I can’t express how amazing it was to have my fellow classmates who ran it, my “coach”, my friends, and Wendy and her family there supporting me. It was intense, emotional, surreal, and perfect.
If there is one thing I’d want people to take away from this entire experience, it’s that you should never say never, because the odds are, you are capable of so much more than you know. It just might take having the right motivation to get you there; whether that comes from an inspirational experience, your loved ones, within, or (most likely) a combination of them all.
While I still cannot begin to imagine the circumstances leading up to how I met Wendy, I am so thankful for everything following this event that brought both her and her family into my life. They have all kept in touch and are truly some of the most positive and caring people I have had the pleasure of meeting. They continue to remind me every day of the power of positivity and the impact physical therapy can make.
I can’t say if I will run another marathon or not, but I do know that this experience was so special and so perfect, I wouldn’t have wanted my first marathon to turn out any other way.
Can’t wait for #RunningForWendy to become #RunningWithWendy.
Sarah graduated this year from USC’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program. She wants to specialize in working with children and is currently employed at Kids in Motion Pediatric Therapy in Torrance, CA. She still loves doing gymnastics, as well as reading, eating, and going to the beach. She also finally has to admit that she has become a runner.