Running Despite a Disability

by Mary Claire Falatico

A week ago today on June 11, I was unconscious, on a ventilator. Everything was being done to keep my body alive for me. There was a tube down my trachea to breathe for me, another one down by esophagus to feed me, and multiple IVs, one directly into my neck, for medication and hydration. My last memory was hugging my husband when he left me in the intensive care unit on Thursday night. I had a bad asthma exacerbation due to the extremely poor air quality and was on BiPap, a machine that helps you breathe by forcing air into your lungs. I could speak a word or two, and was aware of my surroundings, although my memories are a bit blurry. My next memory was a doctor’s face in my face telling me to try to breathe because “You’ve failed two breathing trials already. You have to BREATHE!” I felt my husband's hand, and I could feel the tube in my throat and was aware I wasn’t breathing but I had no ability to make myself breathe. My next thought was, “I guess I’m dying.” Everything was bright and then nothing…The next thing I remember, I was awake and the tube was out. It took me a while to take in the situation, but it was Saturday afternoon at that point and I had come very close to not coming off the ventilator. Not something I wanted to imagine for me, my husband or my family. At 31 years old I have a lot more life to live and a lot more life to give.

My story is not one of triumph, it will never be that. I will never make headlines for beating a disease and doing a rare feat, because my disease process is chronic. Each time I have an asthma exacerbation, whether it requires intubation or not, the damage to my lungs increases and my chances of surviving the next one decreases. Asthma is like many other chronic progressive diseases that have flares, and remissions where the person appears in a healthy state unless they are in a flare, but the disease can be deadly and is devastating. I have been an athlete for as long as I can remember, I grew up on a small farm in Hyde Park, NY and was a very active child, always out working on the farm, hiking with my parents, and then trail and road running with my mom and older sister Laurel. I ran my first trail race at 10 years old and fell in love. I also had asthma. I had a nebulizer I would have to use when we brought in the hay or cleaned out the chicken shed. Initially the doctor told us I would grow out of it and it was “childhood asthma,” but it got worse. I got intubated for the first time at 19 years old, and now at 31 years old I have been intubated 10 times due to an asthma exacerbation.

Mary Claire in middle running Stockade-athon in 2022 with friend Theresa DeLorenzo on right

In between asthma exacerbations I still have a strong love for running and life. I have run multiple ultramarathons, half marathons, and two official marathons with the first one being at 16 years old with my mom. I know I am not the only runner out there with a chronic health condition, and I want to show that although it is extremely frustrating to have limitations on your body that others around you may not have, you can still chase your dreams. I have had to modify my training in response to my asthma significantly to stay safe; for instance, I cannot run outside if it is under 32 degrees or I will have an asthma exacerbation. This was a very hard pill to swallow when my asthma got to this point because I love winter running, I love outdoor running, and running with my small group of running friends is important to me. But I adapted and overcame it, because I am not going to let this disease stop me. I run most of the winter on a treadmill, I watch a lot of silly shows, and my coach gives more workouts so when spring comes, I am fit and ready for running outdoors again. I know that running past a person smoking on a sidewalk can send me into an asthma exacerbation so if I am running on a sidewalk I run early in the morning or am hyper aware so I can cross the street before I am exposed to the smoke. I also always carry my rescue medication and a phone. I have also learned that when my asthma is under control my body responds well to training and I can put in some beautiful training and racing, and I am forever grateful for healthy times. I’ve come to accept that for me making it through a training block healthy and breathing is the biggest achievement and the biggest gift I can ask for.

                                                                         Mary Claire with her family

If you are a runner or athlete with a chronic health condition, please don’t give up on your dreams, but be smart. I am followed closely by my pulmonologist, my coach, and my dietitian. They all know exactly how much I run. I have found that because I have this disease and end up in the hospital there are people who feel they have the right to tell me what they think I should do. This is frustrating, especially when I know I am following a doctor's orders and a person on the internet or someone I considered a friend tries to tell me what I am doing is wrong. If you are a runner or athlete out there with a chronic health condition and run into this issue, my suggestion would be to ask yourself, is this person your doctor, your spouse, or someone who truly knows you, all of you. In the end it is your body and only you know how you feel. But I personally listen to how my body is feeling each day, and take the advice of my doctor, coach, dietitian, and husband over someone on the internet. I always believe that in the end we oversee our own destiny, and if we are facing extra hurdles due to having a chronic disease, to get to that destiny we desire just means we have to fight harder every day to get there.

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