Recovered Memories

It was a crisp and sunny Sunday autumn morning at the start line. We woke up early and drove 72 kilometres from home for this race. I could see my breath and that of the other anxious runners. I was wearing my blue 2010 Boston Marathon long-sleeved shirt that I’d earned 3 years before. My daughter beside me and my wife waving from the side of the road, the air horn sounded the start of the race. My daughter and I ran on the side of the road to avoid the slower runners in the middle. She gradually pulled away and I watched her pink jacket bob in and out of the runners ahead. As the course turned north, the Niagara Escarpment allowed me a sweeping view of the snaking trail of runners heading downhill towards Lake Ontario. It was a perfect day. After 1 hour and 45 minutes, I remember hearing the cheering from the finish line, out of sight but ahead, with the lake and the sun flashing through the trees to my left. That’s where it ended; others would have to fill in the blanks in my memory.

But then a trim, fit looking runner with a Boston Marathon shirt kind of fell in front of me. He kind of stumbled and collapsed… only about 200m from the finish line. I ran over to see if he was hurt.  He was lying face down, still breathing, but not answering me when I asked him if he was okay or what his name was. Then he appeared to stop breathing. So a woman joined me and we rolled him over and checked for a pulse. He didn’t have one. So I yelled for someone to get an ambulance. And we started CPR.

Rob (a spectator watching for his wife in the race)

We turned around to see a half marathon runner collapse just 20 feet away. My sister-in-law Brenda, who is a nurse practitioner and 7 months pregnant, sprinted towards him. The runner did not have any vital signs. Brenda and another man began chest compressions immediately.

Maria (among her family, watching for her father and brother in the race)

I spot a runner face down on the pavement. He isn’t moving. I run towards him, but another spectator gets there first and yells for medical help. The downed runner is smack in the middle of the narrow race course and runners are now pouring directly towards the emergency scene. We start diverting them around the obstruction and recruit several more volunteers to the task. The approaching runners are confused. They think we’re high-fiving them as we motion with our arms.

Art (finished the race in 1:28:06 and was walking back on the course, looking for his friends)

Things were getting a little chaotic, with runners running by and a small team of people gathering to help this man. I noticed runners were confused and alarmed by the situation, so I decided to direct runner traffic. This man had collapsed in the middle of the road where people were running.


I am with a man in blue [Note: I think this is me] and I’m sticking with him. I run and run as hard as I can. The 20k marker gets hit and its time to take off. Race to the finish. I can hear the finish and taste the victory. All of a sudden there is a man down in front of me with people all around him. I see them roll him on his back and someone assumes a CPR position. As I run past I think, “I should stop.” And think, “They’ve got it under control.

Nicole (running the race and finishing in 1:45:56))

There was a runner just standing in the middle of the path. Dude! I thought to myself until I realized he was telling us all to move over, that behind him there was a crowd. A crowd surrounding a man. A crowd surrounding a man who was receiving CPR. A man who was receiving CPR whose eyes I looked right into and saw nothing there. “Oh my God” I whispered. Or yelled. I can’t quite remember. I just remember being so horrified. So I ran.

Samantha (running the race and finishing in 1:48:27)

The St. John’s volunteers are working furiously. I have never seen CPR in action, and the brutality of it is shocking. The woman crouched over him crushes his chest with each compression. The runner is motionless, his body absorbing each thrust like a foam pillow. If you didn’t know what was going on, you might suspect a gang was beating up an unconscious man on the ground, the procedure is so violent.


Now there are five or six people clustered around the runner. They strip his shirt off. Someone arrives with a defibrillator. We hear a tense voice barking orders as they apply the electrodes and jolt his torso with electricity. More rapid CPR.


As I stood there for the longest 7-8 minutes of my life, medical professionals began to arrive and help out alongside my sister-in-law. There was a volunteer doctor, a trauma nurse, St. John’s Ambulance staff and finally EMS. They were alternating between chest compressions and using a defibrillator to shock him several times.


After 10 minutes, an ambulance pulls up and two paramedics jump out. The paramedics join in on the CPR. but I still see no response from the runner. Our runner is loaded onto the stretcher and then wheeled back to the ambulance. I watch as he goes by. He’s motionless. No colour in his face, his head slumped to the side. He doesn’t appear to be breathing. I assume he’s dead and they’ve all but given up as they load him into the vehicle.


By the time the ambulance arrived and the man was put on a stretcher, there were about 15 medical professionals around. The scene was chaotic and the outlook was gloomy, however they had found a faint pulse by that time.


An automated external defibrillator had been brought to the scene by the Marathon Event Medical volunteers but was unsuccessful in converting heart rhythm. EMS was successful with the use of their AED and associated medications.

Jeff (St. John’s Ambulance)

Marathon Runner Collapses Near Finish Line. A runner is in serious condition after collapsing near the finish line of the half-marathon. Event organizers laud efforts of quick-thinking bystanders, event volunteers. After 10 a.m. on Sunday, paramedics rushed to Confederation Park after receiving a call about a fallen runner whose vital signs were reportedly absent.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (evening news headline):

Patient unresponsive to commands and thrashing in ER. Modified Glasgow Coma Score = 8. Heart rate about 80/minute with occasional runs of PVCs. Sedated, paralyzed and intubated. Cooling initiated.

Hamilton Health Sciences (Emergency Department Record):

It was described in the hospital emergency room record as “witnessed ventricular fibrillation”. Instead of rhythmically pumping blood to the rest of the body, my heart was quivering like a block of cherry Jello flicked by a child. Without oxygenated blood being pumped from the heart to sustain it, my brain began to shut down in a sequence, like the lights in a football stadium after the fans had gone home. I was unconscious before I hit the path on which I was running. As parts of my brain stopped functioning, so did my breathing.

No pulse.

No respiration.

Vital signs absent.

Sudden cardiac arrest.

Heart rate recorded by my Garmin chest-strap.

But for the quick response from bystanders and medical personnel, and the stubborn Emergency Room nurse Gaelen who organized them all and refused to stop the CPR, I would have died on the running path. But I was fortunate. My fall was broken by an emergency room physician who was running behind me, assisted in providing CPR, and went on to complete the race (her time was 2:03:10). Another physician, walking her dog in the area, administered epinephrine from her epi-pen. Many people came to my aid.

From collapsing on the path to the ambulance departing with me for the hospital, 22 minutes had passed. My daughter and wife heard the ambulance siren as they looked for me in the crowd of exuberant finishers. A policeman drove them to the hospital where my wife was told to prepare herself as I might not survive. My son and my siblings arrived at the hospital expecting the worst. Over the next days, my wife kept family and friends informed:

Monday: “Ted continues to sleep. Early tomorrow morning they will reduce the medication so he can wake up.  Apparently people vary widely in terms of how long this takes, so sometime tomorrow is the best estimate we have. After he wakes up they can better assess his situation. So we are waiting patiently.”

Tuesday morning: “Ted has opened his eyes and wiggled his toes! This is great news! It may be a while before he does anything else.”

Tuesday afternoon: “Ted is awake and fully coherent. He knows who we are and is talking. Ted sitting up making jokes and asking for coffee.”

I have no memory of any of this, except for wanting coffee when I awoke. Two days after the race, I was brought out of the induced coma and hypothermia in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, and that evening received a finisher’s medal from the race organizer. With tears in my eyes, I accepted the gift I was given. It was my first DNF.

The quick response of bystanders and medical personnel not only saved my life but prevented any damage to my heart. I would run again only because of their courage to step in and help a stranger.

Ten years have passed since that day. I’m still running and very thankful.

Learn CPR. Someone you love may depend on it.

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