One Step at a Time -Spring 2014

Boston Marathon another part of Robin Harvey’s recovery

by: John Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

THE MARATHON IS A TEST. Finish faster than everyone else, finish faster than you did last time, or just FINISH. So you train. You find a strategy, sure, but there is no escaping those moments when sheer force of will replaces the TRAINING. Anybody who even considers RUNNING 26 miles and 385 yards is looking for a CHALLENGE. It is the nature of the marathon.

Robin Harvey’s marathon challenge began, not on an early-morning training run or with a new pair of running shoes, but on a Boston MedFlight helicopter to Boston Medical Center.

On the evening of April 17, 2012, however, she was not looking for a challenge. She was just looking to get home from work. It was unseasonably warm that night. She thought she would ride her bike.

Robin said goodnight to her friends at the SeaGrille, which she owns and operates with her husband, E.J. She runs the front of the house and he is the chef. It is the sort of small-town restaurant where, especially in April, your customers are also your friends.

“I was talking with the Adams, Jerry and Mary, our neighbors, and they asked me if I wanted a ride home, but I said no. We don’t live far and I like to ride. I packed my dinner in a basket and off I went,” Robin said.

It was the last thing she remembers of that night. In one of those small mercies that sometimes accom- pany violent accidents, she does not remember the drunk driver that hit her, or the impact of the asphalt against her head, or lying there alone on the street just in front of Nantucket Cottage Hospital as the life threatened to drain out of her.

“I don’t have any recall until the family was with me and I was being released from Boston Medical Center to Spaulding Rehab,” she said. “I was conscious but have no memory of being there. I heard I was in an accident, but it really didn’t mean anything to me.”

The Boston Marathon was run on April 16 that year. Dr. Tim Lepore, a long-time runner, was just get- ting back to the island that night, after completing an- other in the long string of Boston Marathons he had been running since medical school. The phone rang, calling him to the hospital.

“Robin had devastating injuries,” said Lepore, who treated her before she was airlifted to Boston Medical Center. “I thought she was going to die. They called me in, and at first I didn’t recognize her and I’ve known Robin for a long time.”

Doctors at Boston Medical Center told Lepore that Robin might live but she would never be the same per- son she was before the accident. Two years later, it looks like they were wrong.

“She is pretty close to the same Robin,” Lepore said.

“She is a fighter. She’s tough and stubborn. Her skull was shattered and she came back from a devastating, life-changing injury. If she had been 17 years old I’d still say this was amazing, but when you are middle- aged you just don’t bounce back as well.”

Her marathon challenge began this way: Stay alive, survive emergency brain surgery, make your way back along a very difficult path, learn to walk again, learn to run, train, train some more, and on the morning of April 21 be at the starting line in Hopkinton with your two daughters, ready to will yourself to the finish line at Copley Square.

“I’m stubborn,” Harvey said, which may be the un- derstatement of the year in sports.

In a blog about her mother’s recovery and eventual training for the marathon, Adriene Harvey writes about those early days. The blog is called “Running with Island Grace.”

“I remember the first day there,” she writes. “Dad was pretty shaken up, she was on the brain-trauma floor and she didn’t know what was going on, nor could she identify any of us, or her grandchildren. I remember sitting in on her first speech-therapy ses- sion. The specialist needed to get a baseline and was asking her questions, showing her pictures and asking her to identify them. One was of a comb; she couldn’t name it. The next card was a house; she had no idea what it was. Over and over again, I sat there and watched my mother, fifty something years of age, apol- ogize to the therapist for not being able to identify items that she had known all her life and that my 2- year-old son could name.”

Injuries like this often require two levels of healing. There are the broken bones and there is the injured brain. They present different challenges.

“I believe the physical part of your recovery pulled the mental part along,” said E.J. Harvey to his wife, as we sat around the SeaGrille one late-winter morn- ing. “Because physically, they were astounded how quickly you could get out of the bed, then walking two or three steps, then down the hallway.”

“Now we’re into May and walking with the help of a wheelchair on the Esplanade, and we were watching the duck boats and crew teams and the weather’s get- ting warmer and then we could take you down there by ourselves,” he said.

“That pulled along, I think, the mental part of it. Because really the mental part was tough at the begin- ning but all of a sudden she could start realizing who people were.”

Robin Harvey has always been athletic. She played college basketball at the University of Rhode Island. That, however, was a long time ago. She is now in her mid-50s, with grown children and grandchildren.

“I can’t quite recollect the specific day that Mom dropped the news on us,” Adriene Harvey writes in her blog. “However, I do remember it giving me chills and punching me in my gut, to the extent I couldn’t say anything. I remember being hit by an overwhelm- ing feeling of protection, questions and doubt. What do you mean you want to run the Boston Marathon? Do you really think that is a reality right now? ARE YOU CRAZY?”

In every family, certain members have personality traits that the rest of the family eventually comes to expect. Robin’s stubborn streak is a constant in the Harvey family.

“That’s why my family thinks I’m alive,” she said. “When they first talked to her the night of the acci- dent and told them I might not make it, Adriene said, ‘You don’t know my mom. She’s pretty stubborn.’ I don’t think of myself as being stubborn, but I am.”

One of the many ironies in Robin Harvey’s return from trauma, was that five years before her accident E.J. ran the Boston Marathon as part of the fundrais- ing team for Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. He had started walking, then jogging, then running, after Lepore told him he had diabetes and the choice was diet and exercise or pills.

“If you can only run across the parking lot but not back, then you walk back,” he said. “You keep going a bit further each time.”

E.J., and his son-in-law Travis Lombardi decided to try to train for a marathon. They could not get an official number in Boston, so they drove to Virginia and ran their first marathon.

Then they began thinking about running Boston.

Unless you are an elite runner, or at least a very ac- complished one, an official Boston Athletic Associa- tion number for the marathon is probably out of the question. Another way you can get an official race number is to hook up with a charitable organization. Sometimes getting one of those numbers can be al- most as difficult.

Michael Sullivan, who at one time was the develop- ment director at Nantucket Cottage Hospital and who later was vice president of philanthropy at Spaulding, helped E.J. and Travis get official numbers by getting them on the Spaulding Race for Rehab team.

Now, five years later, Robin was a patient at Spauld- ing, trying to put her life back together. “Nantucket Cot- tage Hospital and Boston Medical Center kept her alive,” said E.J. “But Spaulding gave her life back to her.”

Even when she got back home to Nantucket, there were months of not being able to walk unless somebody walked with her. There were months of having to wear a helmet to protect her still-healing and fragile skull.

“I still could walk a little bit by myself, but (the Harvey’s other daughter) Kari was very protective,” she said. “They would all worry where I went if I went for a walk by myself. I was still not sure how far I would get or how long my recovery would be. The hard thing was I couldn’t play sports like floor hockey or soccer with my grandkids.”

The day she decided to run the marathon was the day she took her first running step.

“I was a little nervous even walking on the sidewalk. My head was still something I had to protect. So that piece of things, getting used to being out with people around me on the street and just crossing the streets, was a bit of a mental challenge,” she said.

And then, of course, Mother Nature upped the ante by giving her a brutal winter in which to train. Some- how she sees that as an advantage.

“The bad weather all winter kind of took my mind off how far I will have to run, because I was worried with falling on the ice,” she said.

Robin and her daughters simply got the right clothes and running shoes to deal with the weather. They even got those head lamps so they could run at night.

“Because of my stubbornness and because my emo- tional side is a little behind, I don’t dwell on those problems as much as I might otherwise,” she said. “The emotional part of me is still part of my injury that hasn’t really healed yet. I am more excited about being able to do something to help other people by raising money for Spaulding. I am more excited about doing something with Adriene and Kari.”

The Harveys being the kind of family they are, everyone has been a part of Robin’s training. Her daughters, both excellent athletes, have been with their mother every step of the way.

Again, from the “Running with Island Grace” blog: “We can’t do this alone. A lifelong mantra for our fam- ily. We need to lean on one another, to find our center of gravity.”

They used Hal Higdon’s marathon training for novices program, as well as workshops at Spaulding. E.J. went along on some training runs.

“They have you do the longer runs on the week- ends, say 15 miles,” Robin said. “Then a day of rest, then a cross-training day where maybe you swim or ride a bike, then a three-mile day, then five miles, then eight miles, then bump it back up to a long run on the weekends.”

They ran the Hyannis Half Marathon Feb. 23, along with other members of the Spaulding Race for Rehab team, and on March 29 they had one final, major, marathon prep with a 20-mile run.

The first week of March there was a fundraiser held at The Chicken Box nightclub to help Robin, Adriene and Kari reach their pledge goal of $20,000 for Spaulding’s Race for Rehab team. Robin has always been civic-minded, serving on boards and committees and coaching basketball. She has always been willing to volunteer to help out. Since her injury her friends and neighbors have been reaching out to help her. Over $30,000 was raised that night at The Box.

It is part of life on this small island, the urge to help your neighbors. Still, the Harveys were pleasantly stunned by the outpouring of people offering their help in any number of ways. You get the feeling that Robin is much more comfortable being the one doing the giving, rather than the one getting the help.

There are, of course, moments of doubt.

“Sometimes I think, what if I can’t really do this? But I just try to think about something else,” Robin said. “Then I think that I survived whatever I survived and there are people out there who are really sick and not surviving. So this race is something I can finish.”

In the end, this is a story about bad moments and pain, about the awful potential for loss and the thrilling hope of recovery, about having family around to help pull you back into life, and about how running he Boston Marathon can pale in comparison with the sort of test that life might provide at any moment.

“You know, I think its very impressive, her recov- ery,” Lepore said. “It really is amazing. I knew she was tough before the accident and I’m just more impressed every day. She really is my hero to come back from something like that. Of course, I’d prefer she didn’t beat me at Boston, but I think she might.” ///

John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. His most recent film is “Wood, Sails, Dreams.”

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