Brian Clay is no stranger to lacing up his running shoes.
What made his June 14 run unique, however, was that it marked the anniversary of a lifesaving open heart surgery he underwent at the Brigham last year.
“I always knew I wanted to start running again – it was never a question,” said Clay, who had been diagnosed with acute aortic dissection, a serious condition where the inner layer of the large blood vessel branching off the heart (the aorta) tears.
Initially believing his symptoms of chest discomfort and blurry vision could be caused by a panic attack, the New Bedford resident went to Good Samaritan Medical Center’s emergency department in Brockton at his family’s urging. His diagnosis, which is most common in men in their 60s and 70s, came as a shock to the 42-year-old long-distance runner.
Within minutes of his diagnosis, Clay was on a MedFlight helicopter to BWH.
“Aortic dissection is a pathology where minutes count,” explained Steve Singh, MD, of the Division of Cardiac Surgery, who was part of the multidisciplinary team that performed Clay’s procedure. “The expeditious work of several teams made all the difference.”
The surgery was a success, and Clay was eager to get back on the road.
With his doctors’ support, he began a cardiac rehabilitation outpatient program closer to home. Each week, Clay began to walk on the treadmill and use the elliptical, slowly increasing his heart rate, as his care team monitored his vital signs. He remembers the first day he could run at all – a 12-minute-mile pace for five minutes on the treadmill. Once he passed that milestone, he began thinking big.
“I had this plan in my head for a while that I would commemorate the one-year anniversary of my surgery,” Clay said. “Since the date fell on a Thursday and it’s tough to find a marathon on that day of the week, I decided to do something on my own.”
His motivation paid off. After months of running with a heartrate monitor at the gym, completing the New Bedford Half Marathon with his wife, Laura, Clay set out to run the 18.5-mile MedFlight route from Good Sam to the Brigham with his sister and close friend keeping pace.
And when the trio rounded the corner onto Francis Street, Clay was overwhelmed by what he saw.
“My wife, three children and extended family and two of my doctors were there, along with a crowd of reporters from every local TV station,” Clay said, adding that the day couldn’t have been possible without the help of BWH’s Development, Media Relations and Facilities teams. “This experience was way more than anything I could have ever imagined.”
Clay also used his training period to raise $9,000 for Wings for Falmouth Families, a volunteer-based charity that provides financial support to families experiencing medical crises. In the future, Clay plans to raise money for BWH in honor of his care team.
“For him to return to his passion of running and raise money for other patients was tremendous to see,” Singh said. “It’s rewarding to participate in a program so committed to restoring healthy lives to patients like Mr. Clay.”