On Friday, once again, I cancelled my elective bilateral foot surgery, cheilectomies to ameliorate the effects of decades of running miles a day on hard pavement and wearing high heeled shoes to work. Like many other physicians faced with the dilemma of elective surgery, the “what-if’s” got the better of me—what if I get an infection, what if I have a poor result and am worse off than before, what if—god forbid—I end up with an amputation? In the end, I opted out. Six weeks after retiring from my job running a satellite radiation therapy facility for our local university practice, I am having far too much fun traveling, writing, gardening and culling the accumulated belongings of sixteen years in one house to undergo a forced “lay-up” for the summer. The pain I know is preferable to that which my imagination can manufacture. In short, I am a chicken.
Prior to becoming a chicken, I had always been an athlete. At age seven, a swimming instructor announced to my mother, “She’s got talent!” and the next thing I knew I was trying out for the old Shamrock Hilton swim team in Houston, Texas. To this day, the audition remains crystal clear in my mind—the coach asked me to swim the length of the fifty meter outdoor pool. I had never seen a pool so enormous, but I resolved to try. After all, what was the worst that could happen? I jumped into the deep end reasoning that if I didn’t make the whole distance, at least by the time I tired, I would be able to stand up. I reached the shallow end and touched the flagstone, gasping for air. I stood up. The coach said, “Okay, great, now SWIM BACK!” I looked at my mother and began to cry. She commanded, “DO IT!” And so I did, despite the fact that the deep end loomed like a dark lagoon ahead. I made the team. Ultimately, my small stature and dogged nature suited me best for distance events—the 400 meter individual medley, the 1500 freestyle. The fact that I had once been daunted by swimming 100 meters seemed ludicrous a year later.
I graduated from high school one year before the passage of Title IX, the law that ultimately mandated athletic scholarships for women at every public university that offered the same for men. With no incentive to continue a grueling five hour a day routine which produced green hair, bloodshot eyes and oversized shoulders, I turned to running for exercise. And run, I did, for the next thirty five years—on the road, on the treadmill, in hot humid Houston and freezing snowy Boston—I ran away my fatigue, my stress, my disappointments and my sleep deprivation. At age thirty one, after two residencies, I looked to be about eighteen years old, and so I wore heels, to make myself taller, more imposing, more apt to be taken seriously by patients and peers. Oddly enough, that strategy seemed to pay off, when my introduction of myself as “Doctor” no longer resulted in the question, “Really?”
The year before we left Boston in 1992, I watched the “Marathon Man” Johnny Kelley run his last full Boston Marathon at age 84. Many years later, with these feet broken down from walking on tip toe when not running on asphalt, I am no Johnny Kelley. My running days are over for good, and even my walking days are fewer and farther between. But as I contemplate the various ways in which our bodies fail us as we age—cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia—I am thinking that arthritis and bone spurs aren’t all that bad. I can always go back to the pool. Or maybe get that little buckskin Quarter Horse I’ve always wanted. There is no landscape, emotional or physical, that isn’t improved by the view from the back of a good horse. I’ll get around to fixing those feet one of these days, sooner or later. Probably later.