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Running With My Fear

On a run in 2008, I collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Now it’s time to get back on the Charles River path.

Jessica Fechtor
April 16, 2013
AP/Michael Dwyer
Boston Marathon runners passing through Wellesley, Mass., yesterday.AP/Michael Dwyer
AP/Michael Dwyer
Boston Marathon runners passing through Wellesley, Mass., yesterday.AP/Michael Dwyer

I am running, when my brain explodes. I feel myself going down but not hitting the ground. An aneurysm has ruptured in my brain.

There were no warning signs. That’s usually how it works, I’ve been told. Just a silent pooling of blood, a tiny estuary along the weakened wall of a vessel that will likely stay there, harmless and undetected, until you die of something else.

Sometimes, though, it pops.

It was Aug. 19, 2008, and I was at a professional conference in rural Vermont. I was 28 years old. A friend and I had planned to meet for an early-morning run along the country roads, but thunder and lightning had sent us to the gym instead. A few weeks earlier, I’d run the New York City Half-Marathon, the longest distance I’d ever raced. I felt healthy and strong because I was healthy and strong. Until, in an instant, I wasn’t.

The majority of people who suffer ruptured brain aneurysms die on the spot. Those who survive are typically left with life-altering physical or mental deficits as a result of either the hemorrhage or the high-risk brain surgery. Statistically speaking, I am supposed to be dead, or at least disabled. I am neither of these things. There was a surgery to repair the ruptured aneurysm, a life-threatening infection that left me without a chunk of my skull, and a medically prescribed hockey helmet that I wore for 10 months to protect my brain. Next came the surgery to piece my head back together and, the following year, one final reconstruction. Along the way, I lost my sense of smell (it came back) and the sight in my left eye (it didn’t). I was unspeakably lucky. My recovery may have been long but, with the exception of that one eye, it was complete.

“You can run now,” my neurosurgeon told me, once the inside and outside of my head were finally back in one piece. It had been one year since the rupture, and he knew I’d been waiting for those words. They thrilled me. They also terrified me. I had no more aneurysm, he assured me. The clip he had placed to seal it off had done its job; the aneurysm couldn’t come back any more than a healed broken bone could spontaneously re-break. The scans showed that the rest of my brain was clean. I trusted him, but I didn’t know how to believe him.

I live outside of Boston in Cambridge, Mass., a few blocks from the Charles River. The running trail alongside it is flat and pretty, a red carpet for my running shoes. Still, I was afraid to go alone. For a while, I ran only with my husband. We started slowly, running, then walking, then running again, as much as I could take. I got stronger, and soon we were counting half-miles. Then, full ones. One day, he ran ahead and looped back home so that I could do the second half of the run on my own. He turned the corner and disappeared, just like that.

Once alone, it hit me: the memory of how the world had gone gray right before my fall. I thought of the stick drawings of my aneurysm that the surgeon had drawn for me again and again to illustrate what had gone wrong. I noticed an itch on my scalp. I scanned the trail to see who might come to my rescue if I collapsed. A girl on the grass has her cellphone out. That couple on the bench looks nice. Not so much traffic right now on Memorial Drive. An ambulance could get here fast. I made it home, and the next time, and the time after that, I go alone the whole way. Each bridge along the route is a finish line: JFK, Western Ave., River Street, BU. Then, one warm October evening, I run all the way to Mass Ave. The river widens there, it’s liquid light, and the city of Boston stands tall.

One year earlier, I’d been in a hospital bed, my skull in pieces, my body spent from multiple surgeries and powerful antibiotics. I had a view of the Charles River from my room, and on a gorgeous Columbus Day, I’d watched from above as the Tufts 10K runners—a stampede of tiny healthy people—crossed the Longfellow Bridge. I tried to imagine myself as one of them, as I had been the year before. I couldn’t. Sukkot would begin that night. For the next week, many of my friends and family members would eat their meals in sukkahs, open-air huts that are flimsy and fragile by design. This is the custom. You look up and see the stars. The wind blows, and you feel the absence of the solid walls that normally surround you. Sukkot is the holiday that throws what’s permanent and what’s temporary into sharp relief. From my hospital bed, two months into my illness, I could no longer tell the difference. My runs would help me learn to see it again.

I ran on. The race I’d watched from my hospital bed I ran myself the following year, my feet slapping to the finish along Commonwealth Avenue. I ran through my pregnancy, until the day my daughter came screaming out into the world 19 months ago. And then, something happened. The fear that I had carefully tucked away came billowing forth. The clip in my brain, so strong (so irrelevant, even, to holding the now-healed blood vessel together), I pictured as a plastic clothespin, ready to snap. I feared something greater now than death; I feared my own absence in a life that needed me here. I feared losing my child, having her lose me.

So, I stopped running. As though not running gave me some kind of a say over the terrible things that may or may not occur.

At my annual physical last week, the doctor does all of the usual tests, though he says he suspects I’m in excellent health. (My blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are typically so low that once, in the thick of aneurysm recovery, he’d said, “At least you’ll never have heart disease!”) He asks if I’m still running. I tell him I’m not and why. “Well, if you’re afraid,” he says, “don’t run. What can you do? You feel how you feel.” I’ve gotten this before from people I love who are themselves afraid for me. But hearing him say it now, I am certain this is wrong.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I don’t think we’re supposed to live that way, not doing the things that scare us.”

“Do you miss it?” he asks.


“Then run.”

When I was first getting back into running after my surgeries, I would challenge myself to go an entire run without a single prick of fear. I’d force my thoughts away from the fall, the MRIs, the spinal taps, the IV bags. Even on good runs–great runs–I never made it through. I think it’s time to let that go. There will always be fear for me in running. That’s where my trauma lives. But other things live there, too: joy, strength, freedom, life, the glowing skyline of a city I love and the river that leads me to it. The fear feels different alongside these things. Sometimes, not like fear at all.

I am starting to be ready.

Jessica Fechtor is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. Her first book, a memoir with recipes, will be published by The Penguin Group in 2014. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter @sweetamandine