In celebration of the 127th Boston Marathon, Brigham Bulletin is highlighting the stories of three members of the Brigham’s Stepping Strong Marathon Team. Comprising 156 runners, the Stepping Strong team will follow the historic Boston Marathon route on April 17 — all in support of The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation at the Brigham.
About Stepping Strong
Established in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation has evolved from one family’s bold response to a personal tragedy to a thriving, multi-institutional, multidisciplinary hub tackling the continuum of trauma care. From prevention and intervention to treatment and rehabilitation, the center’s mission is to transform care that will change outcomes for trauma survivors and their loved ones.
You can advance this critical work by supporting the Stepping Strong Marathon Team. Click here to meet members of the team or make a gift.
When pacing the halls of the hospital became too much for Michelle Wilcox, her feet led her outside. Wilcox had been at her brother’s side for the past two days after he was brought to the Brigham following a horrific car crash.
It was Oct. 11, 2021, the first and only time the Boston Marathon took place in the fall — a result of the marathon’s 2020 cancellation due to the pandemic. Wilcox, a fitness coach from Rochester, N.Y., walked until she encountered the runners. What she witnessed inspired her.
“I hadn’t run in like 10 years, but I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should run this marathon,’” Wilcox remembers thinking. “I shelved it because things were so crazy. But it was in the back of my mind.”
About 48 hours prior, she had received a call from her sister-in-law with the awful news that her brother, Michael Depferd, had been in a serious car accident on Cape Cod and transported by MedFlight to the Brigham. Ultimately, he was hospitalized for roughly two weeks as his care team worked tirelessly to save his life and help him heal from the injuries he sustained, including a collapsed lung and traumatic brain injury.
“I truly believed he wasn’t going to make it,” Wilcox recalled emotionally. “You wouldn’t in a million years think that somebody who had suffered that kind of trauma would recover. The doctors and the nurses were so amazing, and they gave us a lot of hope.”
Watching the runners stayed with her, and eventually blossomed into a real goal. Having learned about the Brigham Stepping Strong Marathon team during her visits with her brother at the Brigham, Wilcox knew it would be a wonderful way to honor her brother and support future trauma patients.
“I feel called to give back to the place that gave us our largest blessing,” Wilcox said. “I’m 100 percent convinced that if he had not gotten to the Brigham safely that night, he would not have made it.”
Now, 18 months since the accident, Depferd continues to heal and grows stronger each day. His resilience is a great source of inspiration to Wilcox, who is excited to see him cheering from the marathon sidelines.
“It’s a full-circle moment for our family to get to this point after what has been a really, really tough last year and a half,” she said.
Vivek Shah, MD
Ten years ago, orthopaedic surgeon Vivek Shah, MD, was a runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon — an experience that stays with him to this day.
“It certainly changed my life,” said Shah, director of Outpatient Arthroplasty at the Brigham. “My wife, my 18-month-old daughter, my parents and my sister were all waiting for me at the finish line. I feel immensely lucky that we were all unharmed.”
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Shah participated in the rescue of injured runners. While the sorrows of that day are still fresh in his memory, he added that Boston’s extraordinary response to the tragedy leaves as big an impression.
“This is an event that will never be forgotten here,” Shah said. “It reminds people what’s important.”
Between 2010 and 2017, Shah participated in a marathon annually. This year’s race will be his 10th and likely his last, he says. To prepare, he completes eight- to 10-mile training runs three times a week, waking at 4 a.m. to do them before work.
“I’m five years older than the last time I ran, and my body’s telling me that,” Shah said. “But I think it’s also more important to do it this year than any other year.”
Running for Stepping Strong is particularly meaningful to Shah as a surgeon, knowing that the work of the Stepping Strong Center funds innovative research and education to improve the outcomes of future trauma patients.
“The center supports amazing programs and research efforts,” he said. “It is gratifying to be an orthopaedic surgeon and see the impact at the institution where I work.”
Shah noted that he has avoided attending the Boston Marathon as a spectator since the bombings due to the intense emotions that day surfaces for him. But last year, he decided to bring his now 11-year-old daughter to the halfway point of the race and cheer for the runners — an experience he says was both healing and poignant.
“I told her that she was actually there on the day of the bombings, because now she’s old enough that she’s starting to read about the history of America,” Shah recalled. “I thought it was important for her to know that she was there.”
Ally Martinis, PT, DPT
Ally Martinis, PT, DPT, sees a direct line between her decision to participate in the marathon and her work as a physical therapist caring for patients who have experienced limb loss or amputation.
“They are my inspiration,” said Martinis, who works at the Brigham’s Foxborough Health Care Centers. “If I’m having a tough run, I think about how hard they work with me.”
Stepping Strong’s mission to advance trauma care and research resonated with Martinis, who is passionate about helping her patients achieve their goals and improve their quality of life.
“Of course I have to run for this team. This is perfect for what I do,” Martinis said. “It’s so motivating, and it means the world to me that I get to help raise money for this cause.”
Having the opportunity to run this year was especially meaningful, Martinis added, as it marks the 10th anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Even after so much time, she continues to see the impact of the tragedy on Boston and the significance of the anniversary for her patients.
“I felt very honored that this is the year I get to run for Stepping Strong,” she said. “Their work is very impactful for me because it’s going to help a lot of future patients hopefully get the care they need.”
In reflecting on her patients, Martinis said she is incredibly proud of their remarkable resilience and determination, and that the work she puts into training is entirely dedicated to them.
“For some of my patients, it’s difficult to go from a seated to a standing position, and if they do that five times in a session, we’re celebrating because that’s an accomplishment for them,” Martinis said. “I get motivation from how hard they work, and it just keeps me going.”
Martinis added that running this marathon is a way of expressing her pride in her patients and supporting work that will help improve the future of trauma care.
“I can only hope that me running for this specific cause shows them how much I care about their progress — not just here in physical therapy, but their goals in life and in the future,” she said.