"Brendan's Buddies" Blossoms in Boston and Beyond
Breathing Life and Hope, Blowing Away Doubt
Posted Monday, 14 April, 2003
Just after sunrise, a fit, bespectacled man maneuvers a baby jogger through the well-preserved neighborhoods of Worcester, Mass. The tableau is emblematic of contemporary American family life: It evokes themes of good health, innovation, sacrifice and a dad who's literally pulling (or pushing) his domestic fair share. Such impressions are abetted by 40-year-old Brian Carroll's standing in his bustling New England hometown; he is seemingly glowing not only with sweat, but with the sort of idealism borne of dutiful prosperity.
But to paraphrase Paul Harvey, there's so, so much more to the story. And today, a growing number of people are discovering the miracle behind it all.
Brendan Carroll was born three months premature on July 10, 1999. He weighed 1½ pounds and was, in the succinct words of his father, "terribly sick." Like virtually all babies born this young, Brendan had respiratory distress syndrome (RDS); his lungs were simply not mature enough to allow him to breathe on his own. The administration of artificial lung surfactant- a substance produced naturally in fully developed lungs that prevents tiny air-exchanging surfaces from collapsing and sticking together and available in hospitals for only the past dozen or so years - kept Brendan alive. He was immediately placed on an oscillator-type ventilator and remained on this "heavy lifting equipment" for over three weeks.
"Just sitting there as a parent and watching these machines changes you," Brian reflects. "You worry about the power going out in the hospital, you ask the nurses questions about fire-evacuation procedures, you jump ten feet whenever a beeper sounds. It's 24/7 stress at its best."
For hours at a stretch, Brian and his wife June sat quietly with their third child's tiny hand wrapped around their fingers, hoping Brendan was feeling something, somewhere. Unfortunately, Brendan's hospital course was fraught with complications. A series of infections jolted an already tenuous existence into mortal danger, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage that required two delicate surgeries. The "NICU roller-coaster," as it's called, had begun: dizzying and unpredictable cycles of improvements and setbacks, high hopes and abject terror. "Each time,you take the hand of your child, and the NICU staff takes yours," Brian says. From then on, Brendan was plagued with breathing and heart irregularities, low white-cell counts, damaged retinas, and sudden lapses in consciousness. He was finally discharged five months after he was born, but remained a frequent visitor to the U.-Mass. PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) for over a year.
"The NICU staff becomes a part of your family," Brian says."You cry, laugh, worry, and even eat together every day your child is a patient." The high level of compassion his family experienced, he says, may never be duplicated. "The experience changed us.We became ever more grateful for the survival of our son." He jokes, "It would have been much easier to be one of sixteen castaways fighting it out on a television show for a million dollars." June remained friendly with the hospital staff, attending adult CPR courses and volunteering each Wednesday. She was the founding member of what later became a family support group; doctors could tell "preemie parents" that once a week, June would be there to help them cope. She continues in this role today.
Once the ordeal finally wound down, Brian, awash in gratitude, sought a tangible outlet for his urge to share his experience and hope. "As a parent, I wanted to give back. At first I didn't know how," he says. But it didn't take him long to piece together a plan that,were it not for the magnitude of his travails, would have seemed staggering in scope.
"Stress has a funny way of adding pounds to your body; I couldn't escape this by-product of the NICU! So with Brendan starting to heal, I started to run in the mornings, before work. I was forty pounds overweight and would be turning forty in nine months. It was the hot summer of 2001. I struggled to even do one and a half miles. But all my high-school track days came back, and I crawled my way up to an every-other-day run of three miles."
It was during these solitary times that Brian was able to take stock of the odyssey Brendan had taken him on. During the past two years, caught up in a never-ending series of crises, Brian had had little time to reflect. His newfound introspection fed his resolve. "My workouts became longer and my runs became more frequent," he says. "The pounds were coming off and the stress was becoming easier to manage, but the desire to channel two years of pent-up energy into something was ready to erupt."
One important channel Brian tuned into was the Central Mass Striders, New England's largest running club and headquartered in Worcester. Brian joined the club at the behest of club president Rich Lemerise. "A new runner can be intimidated by the all-star line up of CMS," says Brian, "but Rich understood this and made me feel welcome as a novice. Not only did I join a super running club, but I joined one that treats its members as family."
Before Brendan's travails, Brian had little experience with either long-distance running or organized fundraising. This is common among charity marathoners, whose ever-increasing road- race presence has garnered due attention in general, but whose efforts are often overlooked at the individual level.
For such runners the implied commitment is immense. If an experienced marathoner who assumes the added challenge of soliciting donations is merely ambitious, an overweight dreamer with little time to prepare and similar fundraising aims faces formidable, almost laughable odds; to ably handle both roles while caring for a frighteningly ill child is seemingly beyond comprehension. But such is the stuff, apparently, that dreams, and hope, may render real.
During Brian's fitness comeback, Jenique Radin, the fundraising director at the U.-Mass Memorial Children's Medical Center, invited him to meet with her. June had become friendly with Jenique at a recent golf tournament held to benefit the NICU. Over breakfast, Brian and Jenique talked about different ways to raise more money for the unit. The golf tournament had raised enough to buy four new breathing ventilators, but the NICU needed more; a lack of spare parts was making existing equipment obsolete. "I was thinking of organizing a road race with my newfound enthusiasm for running," says Brian.
But Jenique had a better idea. The year before, Lisa Ling from the hit show The View had run the Boston Marathon and raised money for the U-Mass. Medical Center's cancer programs. She challenged Brian to do the same. "My first thought was just, 'wow,'" Brian says. "The Boston Marathon is the Super Bowl of all running events. Ever since I first slapped on my canvas Adidas Country shoes and ran around the Worcester Armory in my first 600-yard race, I had dreamed of running it."
There was more: Years earlier, Brian and his brother Kevin, in the course of a lazy afternoon discussion, had swapped secret and intentionally farfetched goals - something each man hoped to do by age 40. Brian's? To run in the Boston Marathon. Kevin, stricken with diabetes, passed away in 1998 before he could reach that milestone himself, and Brian realized as he sat in Radin's office that Kevin would have celebrated his 41st birthday that day. "One thing I believe," he says, "is that when all the signs are there, you follow them." (Kevin, incidentally, is buried next to Jay Lyons, one of the firefighters who perished in a Worcester warehouse blaze in the winter of 2000 and whose memory is preserved by an April CMS 5K road race.)
But the Carrolls already faced their own Heartbreak Hill: no entry number and only six months for Brian to condition his near-40-year-old, still-overweight body for a twenty-six-mile journey.
At first,he relied almost purely on spirit. "Only once had I ever run even 10 miles, and that was back in 1976." But he had desire and a clear mission. He resolved to raise $25,000 - enough to buy one more ventilator.
"I began my training with a book recommended to me by Mrs. Johnny Kelley, who runs a small running store, Kelley's Pace, in Mystic, Connecticut," says Brian. (Kelley is the wife of Johnny J. Kelley, winner of the 1957 Boston Marathon.) "I told her with pride I was going to run the Boston Marathon in six months. Her prompt response was, 'You'd better get a little smaller!'"
Kelley turned Brian on to Jeff Galloway's book, Marathon! "I never read a more motivating book," says Brian. "His injury-free workouts were simple and his recipe for a marathon made it possible for an average guy like me to believe." Interestingly, Galloway, shortly before the 2002 Boston Marathon, had a scheduled appearance at a Worcester shoe store that fell through; when it did, Brian and Lemerise, acting on two days' notice from Galloway's office, rustled up as many runners as they could and effectively kept the event from collapsing. "Jeff came to appreciate what CMS did for him," Brian says, chuckling,"We saved face for Worcester!"
Brian entered the Mystic Marathon in October 2001 with friend Dwight Porter,an experienced marathoner. Their goal? "To see how long we could last." Displaying, in Brian's words, "true grit," the pair finished together in five hours, eight minutes. Brian had his first nfinisher's medal. At that point he knew: "Yes, I can do Boston!"
At this point, fundraising began in earnest. Brian created a logo and had a Web site (www.brendansbuddies.com) created to add credibility to his efforts. He recruited friends to help with raising funds from businesses and established a three-person "Brendan's Buddies race team: Porter, Dave Duncan of Pittsburgh, and Brian himself. The trio received an endorsement from the U.-Mass. Memorial Children's Medical Center and the NICU doctors. The story was contagious because of Brendan's continued and remarkable recovery, and sent a positive message of hope after the terrible death toll of September 11, 2001. "We were running so little preemies could one day run themselves," Brian says simply. "One ventilator can save the lives of hundreds of tiny babies. A ventilator saved Brendan's life; a new one can save more." The compelling story touched the right people in turn, and three numbers for the 102nd Boston Marathon arrived.
"Training was hard in the dark mornings of winter," Brian relates. "Long runs were times of personal reflection and, one might say, healing. Each time I got tired, I'd think of Brendan holding my little finger while the ventilator breathed for him, and I somehow breathed harder myself.
"Brendan offered so much hope in a dark time in our personal history."
Brian, consumed with the pure passion to save another life, ignored ongoing soreness and uncertainty. The miles kept piling up. Brian progressed from 10 miles a week to 20, then to 30, then 40.
As another reality check, Dwight and Brian "jogged" the Hyannis Marathon six weeks before Boston. "It gave us another long run with the added benefit of course supervision and water breaks," he says. He logged a 4:50, knocking almost 20 minutes off his Mystic Marathon time. As his confidence grew, so too did pledges to his newly established fund. "We published our training runs on the Web site for the non-believers," he says. "It worked! People gave money just to see more pictures."
With the marathon looming, WBZ Channel 4 of Boston and New England Cable News carried the Carrolls' story as part of their pre-race coverage. Tapes of the segments were eventually turned into videos and sent to Fortune 500 companies Brian worked with. The largest contributions came from insurance companies, including Citigroup (The Travelers Life&Annuity), Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Tufts, Fallon, and Harvard Pilgrim.
"We mailed letters, sent the BrendansBuddies.com URL to anyone who could view it, and made phone calls for our fundraising." Brian says. "One grant application came from a family friend. It was terribly important to coordinate our efforts with the development office at U.-Mass. When people write large checks, they want the proper documentation filed with the IRS. By referring all these "bighitters" to the U.-Mass. Development Office, we were able to secure funds from larger and larger donors." Helpful, too, was the fact that all Brendan's Buddies members, rather than relying on administrative intermediaries a la the larger, established charity running foundations, simply paid their own travel costs and entry fees to races like everyone else.
Race day finally arrived on April 15, 2002. Forecasts of hot weather worried Brian and the other 15,000 Boston Marathon entrants, most of them locals who had been training in sub-freezing temperatures right through the previous week. Brian's race began with an escort from the U.-Mass. Campus Police to the starting area in Hopkinton, where the group bypassed the numerous roadblocks symbolizing the tiny town's annual swoon into cheerfully welcomed chaos.
"The fundraising was over but the race was beginning," says Brian."Doubts enter your mind during the three-hour wait for the starting gun: 'Did I wear the right clothes? Did I eat the right breakfast? Do I have enough Power Bars? Will I be brave enough to not finish if I'm hurt?'" The agonizingly slow walk to the official starting line, he says, made him feel like a death-row prisoner: "You could even hear some runners mumbling, 'Dead man walking.'"
What lay at the end of Brian Carroll's interminable wait, of course, was not an executioner but a deeply symbolic means of celebrating life - his and Brendan's; life, with its essential mishmash of security and fragility, loss and hope. Perched on the edge of extremis, every marathoner faces a comfortable paradox: The nature of the forces responsible for bringing him to this point, with so many other life options available, are both hopelessly evasive and utterly clear. And so, so personal.
The gun fired. "My eyes filled with wonder as I crossed the line and saw nothing but a sea of bobbleheads as far as the eye could reach," Brian says. "I was in the Boston Marathon." And now he, along with a legion of others, would seek meaning within meaning in a medium where words fail: a transcendent story told with every step, mocking the idea that the marathon - a physical and psycho-emotional moshpit and ego-shredder, and that's on a good day - is anything resembling mere sport, even for those in search of laurels or qualifying times or medals.
"During the race,I found the same peace I experienced on my long runs," Brian says. Amid the general tumult of other runners, hundreds of thousands of spectators, and a metro area of five million, he found himself floating in a soupy sea of memories: Brendan's medical struggles, their mutual runs with Brian pushing Brendan in a baby jogger, the smile Brendan gave his dad on race morning. Occasionally his reverie was shattered: "Some other runner would bang into me and I'd be shocked back into reality. 'Hey,I'm in the Boston Marathon surrounded by stampeding gazelles. Hey, these girls at Wellesley College might be cute, but they sure are loud. I know Boston College [Brian's alma mater] is at the top of Heartbreak Hill, but how soon will it show up? I'm at Cleveland Circle, but boy, these tailgaters are rowdy.And I hope the John Hancock Tower I see up ahead is really getting bigger..."
Four hours and fifty-seven minutes after leaving Hopkinton, Brian was in front of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, in the shadow of the Hancock Tower. Porter and Duncan also finished the race as Brendan's Buddies team members. Mission accomplished.
Asked about mechanics of fundraising, Brian hearkens to slogan-esque simplicity: "In the end, we just did it," he says of his grass-roots, circle-of-friends approach. "When I got the idea to raise money by running, I wasn't aware of any models such as the TnT (the Leukemia Society's Team in Training) program or other organized efforts. I simply had a desire to make a difference." The key ingredients, he says, are a clear message, support from the non-profit institution the fundraising will benefit, good friends, and passion. "I see people put as much thought into where they'll go on a vacation," he says. "Fundraising involves the same basic process of organization - as well as a $40,000 price tag."
On the heels of their 2002 Boston Marathon success story, Brendan's Buddies assembled another race team for the 2002 New York Marathon, this time including Richard Nolin of Millbury, Mass. This added another $10,000 to the group's fundraising total, bringing the proceeds of this tiny,upstart operation to $50,000, or$12,500 per runner. Brian had failed in his goal to raise enough money to purchase a single ventilator; instead, he'd raised enough for two new machines for the NICU. Then, in January, Brian finished the Bermuda Marathon in 4:13- by far his fastest time to date - while June ran the accompanying half-marathon along with JoAnnBauer. Now a full-fledged competitive marathoner in every respect, Brian trained up to 50-60 miles a week in the hope of breaking four hours at Boston in April 2003. Meanwhile, the team grew to almost a dozen members by early spring.
Looking to the future, Brian says, "We will learn from TnT and similar models. I've tapped out many supporters, so we need to recruit other runners toj oin Brendan's Buddies. We're trying to get three more for Boston 2003. Many nurses from the NICU are planning to run the Tufts 10k in the fall 2003; this adds a new level of fundraising, as the less-daunting 10K distance is a terrific way to get entry-level participation." He envisions growth of the Web site, with added photos of more runners - all of them sharing a common mission of literally running for "preemies'" tender lives.
Running Times Senior Writer Kevin Beck will compete in Monday's Boston Marathon as a member of Brendan's Buddies. To learn more about the program, visit www.brendansbuddies.com