dr Stephen Haskins completes his personal marathon miracle in Manhattan

The working days are long for Dr. Stephen Haskins. As an anesthetist and Chief Medical Diversity Officer for the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), he's usually in the office no later than 7:30 a.m. and isn't ready until his room is ready.

In 2019, as his personal and professional life became increasingly busy, Dr. Stephen Haskins that he was carrying some extra weight and wasn't comfortable with his form. He'd run midfield and highfield on the track and cross-country at school, so he'd always enjoyed running in some capacity. He began challenging himself to run miles and found himself hooked on the peace running that was on offer.

"Once you run regularly and get into the long-distance zone, it becomes very addictive," Haskins said. "I'll be out there listening to podcasts or audiobooks, just unplugging and pushing myself with that runner's high that you get when you hit the miles you set out to do that day."

Two years ago, he was scheduled to run his first marathon in Maryland, but the event was canceled due to the threat of COVID-19. Haskins was still running his own personal 26.2 on the day of the marathon in New York City. He would then contract the virus and fight off symptoms he thought could put an end to him, to ever be able to enjoy a nice, brisk run again.

On March 19, Dr. Stephen Haskins crossed the finish line of the first United Tri-Hero Cup Challenge in 2:00:09. The half marathon honored New York City's bravest first responders who have been on the front lines during the pandemic, including HSS doctors, NYPD and NYFD. Haskins detailed his experiences with Covid, the emotional and physical toll of working on the front lines during the pandemic and why his first official marathon was one he will always remember.

The personal path of Dr. Stephen Haskins 26.2

After doing all the training and running marathon miles alone, I said I would run one myself. I did it the weekend the marathon was scheduled to take place in Maryland. I figured I put all that work into it, I might as well check that box. I live in New York and it's actually a very runner-friendly city if you know where to run. I used to run in the Lower East Side, and I actually started there and ran north to 39th Street. There's this little area that's east of FDR Drive that gets you as far on the East Side as possible before it all becomes highway. Then I looped past Battery Park and ran up to the Washington Heights area on the West Side. Basically I walked all the way around Manhattan all the way to the top and then came back down to Houston Street. If you do that, you actually get a little over 26.

A citywide shutdown

Luckily we never ran into trouble from a PPE shortage perspective and have always been adequately resourced when working with Covid patients. The day before I contracted Covid, there was an extreme shutdown in the middle of New York. I jogged 14 miles up 5th Avenue to Central Park. I circled Central Park and came down 7th Avenue through Times Square. I swear I saw more people in Central Park than on 5th and 7th Avenues. Everything was locked. It looked like a scene from one of those post-apocalyptic movies. I wasn't feeling great during this run. My throat was tingling and it was cold and rainy. I came home with a bit of a cough. I was on the couch next to my wife and she was making a Covid joke and I was like, 'I just ran 14 miles, what are you talking about?'

The next day I was not feeling well and in the operating room I developed a fever. I immediately went home and quarantined for the next two weeks. Luckily, my wife and two-year-old son didn't get sick, but I was hit pretty hard. I spent the next two weeks with severe body aches, contracted pneumonia, and had the worst headache of my life for several days. I think all the time I should take care of Covid patients. This is the only true emergency for anesthesiologists. It's the airway, everyone gets intubated and critical care is an integral part of our training. Ventilators are something we deal with every day in the operating room and when caring for patients in the intensive care unit. I was on the brink of misery with this horrible virus. I kept telling myself I had to get out again, but I couldn't because I had a fever for well over a week. I didn't go back to work until I had been fever-free for three days.

What put things into perspective for me was that there were people my age who were on ventilators and in really bad shape. It just made me stop and think that I could have been one of those people. I took it for granted that even though I had a miserable seizure, I didn't need to go to the hospital, and I never had a major need for oxygen. Then I thought if I hadn't been in shape to catch the virus who knows what would have happened. My life could have taken a different turn if I hadn't been in marathon running form before I got Covid. In many ways I think running would have saved my life.

Courtesy of Stephen Haskins

A familiar escape for Dr. Stephen Haskins

I feel like I was trying to compensate for all of that by running because it was something I could control. It was a slow process, gradually increasing the mileage on my runs to try to get back up to speed. It took me up to eight weeks to get to the point where I could run another 13 miles straight. Before Covid I could get up and walk 13 miles almost every day without too much trouble. It was a slow and gradual build up. One thing that I think has also helped is that I have a friend who is a personal trainer. He has written a book called Be More Today. We reconnected last year because I ran a lot and he ran a lot of marathons. He suggested we sign up for this summer challenge called Grit 150 in July, where we committed to running 150 miles in the extreme heat of summer. I'd never run that much before, but it was something to focus on and a good distraction. By the end of the month I had run 160 miles and felt like I was getting back to the state I was in before I got Covid in March.

dr Stephen Haskins is struggling with Covid and himself

I had a big hit after collapsing with Covid for a couple of weeks. What's interesting is that I do a lot of ultrasound imaging for work and have a handheld probe. I was able to scan my lungs and I could clearly tell I had pneumonia on both sides and fluid around my lungs. t surprisingly, I was a little short of breath, but one of the things I absolutely had to do before going back to work was see if I could get out there and rack up a few miles. I went from being able to run a marathon to barely being able to finish a 5K. I had to stop and walk a few times to catch my breath. It was a very dramatic drop in my lungs, my ability to breathe and my general condition.

We were just beginning to learn about Lung Covid because it hadn't existed long enough to believe the symptoms could be chronic. I knew people still had palpitations and shortness of breath. I didn't know if my lungs would go back to their baseline and I felt like I was hitting a big wall. You deal with specific injuries and rehabilitate yourself to get out of there. When we got Covid there was certainly an unknown element as to whether this was going to be a temporary setback or a permanent one. Luckily I'm pretty much back to where I was before in terms of endurance, speed and conditioning. However, it was a struggle to get there.

The thing that stuck with me the longest - at least six months or more - was that I had a pretty bad brain fog. At the time it was difficult for me to differentiate between the stress of what was happening in the world and the heaviness of being in healthcare at this time, and maybe that's why I was just stressed and couldn't really focus on things as clearly like in old times. Simple tasks were difficult. I had to take lots of notes and do lots of things to compensate for not being as sharp as I was before I got sick.

crossing the finish line

It was a nice day of running. I was tending an injured foot last year so this was my first race since I ran practically half of last year. I took it slow because I didn't want to hurt myself again, so I had to push a bit hard during the actual race and did well compared to my practice runs. It meant a lot to me because I had never run a personal marathon before. I happened to take up long-distance running at the perfect time, never to be able to run a personal marathon. After spending the last few years in the solitude of running it was interesting to do it in person for the first time and see the crowd, feel the energy and run places you just can't run unless the city closes Manhattan Bridge or Times Square. From start to finish I took videos and pictures and tried to experience everything. It was like the culmination of all the years of training I've been able to do this personally. It was amazing to have friends and family cheering me on all along and to get that medal and runner's high on top of that moment. It was an amazing experience.

follow dr Stephen Haskins on Twitter @shaskinsmd.

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