Against All Odds: A Marathon Journey

It was the worst day of my life... 
   Dr. George Sr. and I were having lunch at our desks on Wednesday September 20, 2017. It was a pretty normal day, somewhat slow, sun shining and hot. Dad was on the office line when his cell rang - a call from my aunt. I eagerly picked up the phone, awaiting news of my cousin who had been in labor. The news was grave.

I remember when I was small and the wind would call...

   My cousin Leah and I have been joined at the hip since birth. Although she is my elder by seven months, we have always considered ourselves "twins" - fraternal of course. We spent all of our developmental years together, growing up in Canton. Nostalgia calls to mind sporting terrible outfits from OshKosh B'Gosh, climbing trees, pool days at Hall of Fame, thrills at Geauga Lake, and a myriad of precious family gatherings, including annual trips to Myrtle Beach. However, our bond really strengthened in high school and college. High school is that weird time where you have everything, but need independence; college, where you have independence, but need everything. 

   Thankfully, I had Leah, and she had me. When we went to Ohio State, we always lived within one block of each other for four wonderfully challenging years. We discovered who we were and where we wanted to go. As classes, friends, and Buckeye football games came and went, we remained each other's unique support system. Before we knew it, the seasons changed and the years rolled. I stayed in Columbus for dental school, but Leah was off to the University of Pitt to earn her masters and to chase one of my best friends.

You're a kite dancing in a hurricane...
   I am surrounded by panic and fear on a daily basis. Truth be told, I unwillingly, and often unfairly, am the primary source of panic for many individuals. I have become adept at recognizing panic attacks and practice the intricate art of guiding someone through them - probably as much as I practice dentistry. However, it was my turn that fateful September day.

   Panic affects individuals differently; for me, it heightens my awareness, capturing every vivid detail. I remember my uncle's voice on the phone. I remember my heart rate skyrocketing. I remember my breathing accelerating to an unsustainable rate. I remember the immediate denial and disbelief. I remember my dad being so calm with the questions he asked. I remember shaking so violently I couldn't even type "amniotic fluid embolism (AFE)" into Google. I remember the words, "often-fatal." I remember barely being able to get out, "Is she conscious?" I remember the solemn silence volleyed back at me. I remember the waves of tears. I remember sobbing into my dad's shoulder saying, "I'm scared" over and over.  I remember him saying, "How great is your love for one another," and, "She had a boy." I remember the guilt of only thinking about Leah. I remember talking to myself to work up the courage to call my cousin, an OB-GYN. I remember losing it on the phone with her, feeling completely and utterly helpless and broken. I remember her guiding me through my panic attack. I remember her telling me to pray - pray for Leah, pray for the baby, and pray for her surgeons and medical team. I remembered what a true prayer was again.

Don't ever tell me the odds...
   Tony and I had met randomly during Resident Advisor training during our freshman year at OSU. It was as nerdy as it sounds. However, Tony was more of a Stefan, whereas I was the quintessential Steve Urkel. He came from Texas and loved Kobe; I from Northeast Ohio and loved Lebron. Needless to say, we shared an instant bond. I felt as if we had been separated at birth even though Tony had Nigerian blood and I had Lebanese and Italian. An AncestryDNA test would later confirm we have no direct relation. Tony and I became roommates, and before he left for Pittsburgh to pursue his Doctorate of Pharmacy, he had one last surprise for me. In the kitchen of our college apartment, Tony asked me for my permission to date Leah. I told him, "That's more of a question for my aunt and uncle, but there is no other person in this world I would rather her date." Five years later and as one of the greatest honors of my life,  I re-told the story at their wedding. What are the odds?

   AFE cases in North America have an occurrence of 1 in 40,000. That's 0.0025%. As a comparison, National Geographic reports on average an American has a 1 in 3,000 chance of being struck by lightening in their lifetime. AFEs are unpreventable, unpredictable, and occur without warning. Leah's surgeon gave her a 15% chance to live. My uncle immediately said, "She'll be one of the fifteen." When I heard this, I knew he was right. You just have to know Leah.

   I would describe Leah as a "can-do," woo of infectious positivity. She's an incredible listener and a born giver, even to a fault.  Leah is driven by faith and to say she is strong-willed would be an understatement. But, most importantly, when someone tells Leah she can't do something, I always laugh.

If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you...
   Leah inspired me to run my first half marathon. I remember yelling at the top of my lungs as she ran by during her first half in Columbus. She probably would tell you differently, but it looked like she was barely sweating! Pure domination with a smile. Leah was doing it and doing it her way. I was so proud of her. Naturally, she challenged me to do one myself. 

   Three half marathons later, I was on my way to the deep south (Cincinnati) with Shannon, and I got an idea. That Sunday marked twenty-six days since Jackson Edward's birthday, named after Leah's Grandma Jackie and our Jiddo. Leah, Tony, and our incredible Jackson had patiently broken through every obstacle and challenge that came their way. They were steadfast in the recovery process and trusted their medical team - which was essentially the entire hospital - everyone knew Leah. They relied on their faith, their families, and each other. For every step back, they took two forward. It was the beginning of an arduous recovery which I am purposely and respectfully diluting: several major surgeries, in and out of ICU, countless therapies, medications, doctors visits, and, above all, caring for their first child. The Amos family had made it through their first twenty-six days. That weekend, I subsequently decided I could run twenty-six miles. For Leah. For Tony. For Jackson.


If you failed to prepare, you're prepared to fail...
   I'm halfway through marathon training in late February and I find myself standing on top of Peak 8-Breckenridge, Colorado. It's a particularly nasty day at 12,998 feet. The winds nearly brought our chairlift to a stop. I quickly learned the definition of "white out." It's thirty degrees below zero - even too cold for a Millennial to take his glove off and take a picture. My goggles have frozen over, I can't feel anything and I am getting pushed around like a human shuffleboard. I'd never been in this perilous of a position before. What am I thinking about - other than gravity is on my side? My first ever fifteen mile run is next week.

   The marathon training program I decided to follow felt like I was climbing a mountain. It had me running four times a week: three midweek runs in a row and a "long run" on weekends. The challenging part was scheduling it all out with the week's and weekend's events, around occasional injury, and the obvious curve ball of Ohio winter weather, which turned out to be my entire sixteen weeks of training. I had early mornings, late nights, rain, sleet, ice, snow, some sun, a lot of darkness, and always wind. I learned every street name around Jackson township and Lake Cable. Plantar fasciitis, lumbago, strained IT bands, soleus, and achilles, blisters, migraines, and the luxurious runner's trots all became part of the my marathon resume. All to the tune of Billy Joel's infamous Piano Man lyric, "Man what are you doing here?

   The doubt never left, but neither did the training. I couldn't quit. Leah, Tony, and Jackson hadn't. Long runs went from fifteen, to eighteen, to twenty miles. Each progressive milestone I told myself, you've never run this far before. We all set limitations for ourselves, some are set consciously and others subconsciously. Training taught me to stay the course, to trust you can DO MORE and BE MORE, and, of course, to just keep running.    

It's not about the destination, but the joy of the journey...
   Nearly twenty of us were in Philly for Jackson's baptism a week before the marathon. It was palpable how special of a weekend this was. With all of us in a circle in the Amos family kitchen, Tony eloquently summed up everything we were feeling: that family and faith got us to this day and we had much to be grateful for. Leah and Tony had both been back to work for some time and had settled into their new life. Jackson got his mom's contagious smile and endless energy. He also received his dad's laugh and suave Stefan gene. 

   It was a balmy thirty-two degrees at the 7:00am starting line. Yet, at this point the cold and wind brought familiarity, almost comfort. I was excited, relieved the day was finally here and felt an overwhelming sense of poise. Training changed me. It had been four months of hard work, self-reflection, and meditation. It was my coping mechanism for some very difficult months personally. To me, race day wasn't about achievement, or a time goal, it was a celebration. 

   So I hit play on my audio book, Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath - it seemed fitting - and stepped through the start line, reflecting on the card Leah had given me the week before. "We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort" (Jesse Owens). 

26.2 miles later, with a picture of the Amos family in my hand, I would respectfully add: PURPOSE


Dr. George R. Williams is a general dentist at Williams Family Dental Group in Canton, Ohio. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University College of Dentistry and Canton Mercy Medical Center General Practice Residency.  For questions or suggestions for blog posts, please feel free to contact him at drgrw@williamsdentalgroup.com


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