Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Long Run (Book Review)

This month I was able to hop back on the book club train that's hosted by Jamie at From Couch to Ironwoman.  I was riveted by the first read, so I was really looking forward to this month's selection, The Long Run, by FDNY firefighter Matt Long.

I was even more excited when I snagged a hard cover copy of the book for mere dollars at my Changing Hands.  I had taken HRH to get a new book (her selection was Llama Llama Red Pajama), and on a whim, I checked out the sports section and found my little treasure.

The Long Run is the story of how Long, a native NYC firefighter and Ironman, survived one of the most horrific injuries I've ever read about.  On a December morning, after completing the Lake Placid Ironman and qualifying for the Boston Marathon with a 3:13 finish at the New York Marathon, he was hit by a bus making an illegal turn.  Rushed to the hospital, doctors told his family that the probability of him surviving was about 5%.  Instead of being thrown, Long was sucked under the bus and impaled by his bike.
I'll be honest; some of the descriptions of the injuries were so vivid and horrifying that I had to stop reading (the book, though, was a "can't put it down"-er).  Even though I knew that Long DID survive (he wrote the book, so it's not like it was a surprise outcome), there were moments when I honestly wasn't sure that he would make it.  But here's the thing.  Long didn't just survive having his bones crushed and being torn nearly in two.  He made it through countless surgeries and blood transfusions, physical therapy/rehabilitation, as well as mental and emotional scarring to once again become an Ironman at Lake Placid, with only two minutes to spare before the deadline (once midnight hits, participants can finish, but they are not bestowed with the title of Ironman).
What hit me the most was Long's brutal honesty about the emotional and mental hurdles that he encountered during his recovery.  That aspect is not something that I think many people, including me, tend to think about, even though anyone who's had an injury from an ingrown toenail on up have encountered some share of it.  But this accident was a series of extremes, and the roller coaster of emotion was par for the course.  It was, in some ways, acutely frustrating to me to read about how Long allowed himself to wallow in what might be described as self-pity.  I wanted him to be grateful that he'd survived and to think positively about his prospects for the future.  But having experienced my father's death from colon cancer - and the knowledge that he faded in great part because he was just tired of fighting - I also feel badly about the anger that bubbled up inside me.  
But because of my experience with my dad, I am less apologetic about my reaction toward Long's feelings toward his colostomy, although I say that with the full acknowledgement that I have the luxury of a completely intact digestive tract.  The colostomy was one of the first surgeries Long's doctors performed. If you aren't familiar with colostomies, they are generally used for colorectal cancer patients who have to have part (or all) of their colons removed.  When the colon is no longer long enough to stretch to the rectum, the end is brought out of the abdomen; waste is collected in a bag that must be emptied throughout the day.  Sometimes colostomies are able to be reversed; in my dad's case, it became permanent.
Fortunately, Long's was able to be reversed.  My dad had his from his first surgery in 1995 until he died in 1999; at first we had hoped it could be reversed, but later surgeries required more colon removal, rendering the colostomy permanent.
And that's why I got a little angry and... well, I don't know how to put it; my reaction to this is difficult to articulate, even though I've mulled over how to explain it for nearly a month.  Of course a colostomy is a less than ideal situation.  No one wants to have a bag full of waste attached to them.  They can leak, they can burst, and then can certainly smell.  They are an insult to pride and don't allow for vanity.  
But in the case of having my dad around for those last few years, I'd rather have had him - colostomy and all - than not.
So it was difficult to read some parts of this book when I felt Long's loathing of the colostomy was less because of what it represented - the accident - and more that pride and vanity.  Sure, the bag (which, by the way, my dad jokingly named "Sparky") isn't sexy, and it's not something to brag about.  Long's doctors were optimistic that they could complete a reversal, and I felt like the cosmetic hindrance was put at the forefront.
Certainly, I can't even pretend to know what went through my father's mind, much less Long's, but as someone who would give anything to have her dad back, colostomy bag and all, my reactions were what they were.
That being said, Long's story makes any complaint I have about shin splints or tendinitis not even worth mentioning.  It truly is a story of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle (his doctors said that the fact that he was a marathoner and Ironman at the time of the accident probably helped save his life) and the sheer power of the human spirit.  Once Long was able to begin overcoming those emotional injuries that aren't always as obvious, his determination was as jaw-dropping as the beginning of his journey.  To want to walk again I get.  To want to run again - yeah, I was complaining after ten days of rest for that tendinitis.  But to say "I WILL" (now the name of his foundation) to walking, running, and completing a freaking Ironman?  There are no words to convey the admiration I have for Matt Long for his ability to set a goal and to see it through, regardless of the pain.  He is truly a role model, and I think that anyone, even non-runners, can gain some perspective in  by reading this book.  We can all take a lesson from the tenacity with which Long took on his goals.
I am most appreciative, though, of the emphasis on donating blood.  Like Long in the first few days after his accident, my dad needed countless units of blood in his last months.  Blood allowed my dad to tell me, one week before he died, that he loved me one last time.  Without the donations of hundreds of people whose names I will never know, my last conversation with my dad would have been about my college tuition payment.  So that blood donation has been something that Matt Long advocates so strongly speaks to me more than any of the emotional or physical ups and downs of his recovery.  Now, in the days after the horrors of Boston, blood donation is once again in the news.  The Red Cross tweeted that stores of blood were not a concern, which is great this week.  But in two weeks or two months, that can change, so I hope that those who were touched by Long's story and/or the selflessness of the first responders (some of them having just finished the marathon) will make appointments at their local blood banks in the coming weeks and months, and become regular donors so that there is never a time in which blood supplies are dangerously low.  There is no substitute for human blood, and without the countless donors, Long would never have survived that first hour.
At the end of the book, which riveted me in its honesty and clarity, I'm reminded that my reply need to be less "I can't" and more "I will."

If you're interested in joining Jamie's book club, go here and sign up.  Even if you, like me, can't make every month, I know you'll find new inspiration with every read.

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