I woke up on September 22nd at 5:30 in the morning, after four alarms and plenty of stress dreams. I slipped on my racing tank, and as dawn weakened the black night outside, I poked myself with shaky hands while I pinned my bib on: number 3902. I made stovetop blueberry oatmeal, gulping water from my Nalgene. I popped my birth control pill as I do every morning and a Sudafed tablet because I didn’t want an Autumn cold slowing me down.
I left my apartment at 6:30 am and jogged towards the race start where I would meet my running buddy, Clara. My legs felt light, my mind freeing with each stride. I couldn’t help but smile as I ran down Rue Saint-Urbain.
I’ve been a runner since as long as I could remember. When I was 5 and most little girls were asking for Barbies, I begged my mom for a running bra. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of them yet, but all the runners had one, so I had to have one too. My mom eventually gave in. The sports bra fit more like a tank top on my tiny body, but it didn’t matter. I was a runner now. My mom let me run 4 laps on the track at the high school. Four whole laps. I was so happy.
From then on, I joined every team that would have me. I was drawn to the feeling of power and freedom that comes while you’re running, when your two feet are suspended for that split second and you are flying. Nothing can touch you, every worry and stress drifts away.
Today, I was on my way to my first half marathon, and I couldn’t wait to start flying.
About 10K in, I knew I wasn’t feeling great. My head was foggy, everything was spinning. I grabbed water cups from the volunteers handing them out. I was pushing a 4:50/km pace. I knew I could finish in under 1:45 and I was hooked on that time.
By the time I was nearing the finish, I looked at my watch. 1:37. I was so close. I was a kilometer away. My body felt disconnected from myself, I couldn’t feel my legs. I’ve felt this before in hard races. And I was almost there. The crowds were getting louder, the sun brighter. Just a few more corners and I would finish.
The next thing I remember was waking up staring at the sun in the blue sky. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t move my body, I didn’t feel like I had a body. I could see a man out of the corner of my eye. I tried to get up, I thought it was my boyfriend, Robert. Everything was spinning.
I started yelling, “My chum! My chum! Get my chum!” I wanted Robert, and my French class had just learned the colloquial French Canadian term for boyfriend. The paramedic next to me, in a thick Québécois accent, said to calm down. She was not entertained by my poor French and being American and a native English speaker didn’t help.
I remember being in an ambulance. The paramedic was a woman with purple hair, half of her head shaved, the other half long. I felt tingly, dizzy and confused. It was like everything was moving in slow motion. I was terrified. I kept wiggling my toes and fingers to remind myself they were there.
I asked the paramedic if I was dying. She said “No” and then turned to speak to the male paramedic in French. Something was wrong. I had never felt like this. I felt like molasses, unable to move. I asked her again, more panicked this time.
When we arrived at the hospital, I watched the fluorescent lights tick by on the ceiling as they wheeled my stretcher down the hallways. The female paramedic told me we were waiting. I asked her if I was dying. More people in hospital attire came. They spoke in French, but not to me.
I was moved to a small room with an older female nurse. The paramedic left. The nurse tugged at my shirt and said, “off”. She wanted to put cords on my chest. I felt intimidated and vulnerable. I already felt stupid for being in the hosptial in the first place. What had I done so wrong that now I was here? I was desperate to follow directions, to leave, but I also couldn’t get up.
The nurse tugged at my shirt again. She sat me up. She was visibly annoyed. She didn’t know English. She tugged at my sports bra. “Off,” she said. I couldn’t get my arms above my head. My body gave out and I collapsed back onto the stretcher. My head rolled from side to side. My body started jolting back and forth. I knew it was happening, but I couldn’t stop it.
Please stop, I told myself, please make it stop. My mind started racing. This is it. I will never see Robert or Laura, my roommate, again. My parents will have to plan a funeral. My brothers won’t have a sister. Where will I go now? Why me?
I wanted to leave. I wanted it to stop. I grabbed the railing on the stretcher and tried to pull myself over it. The nurse was yelling. She was holding me down. She wanted to put the cables on me. I didn’t know if I was naked or not. I couldn’t stop my body from seizing. I just wanted it to end.
Then I was moving, and the fluorescent lights were ticking past on the ceiling again, faster this time. My stretcher plowed into double doors that swung open. I want to live, I yell at myself, you want to live. My body was still jolting, I tried to breathe, but it felt like I was holding my breath.
I started shouting, aloud this time, “Speak English to me! English! Make this stop!” A male doctor with Nike glasses approached me. He said, “Okay”. He looked around as if to tell everyone else to do the same. He said that I needed to calm down. He said they were going to put me on an IV and that I was just dehydrated, and this happens all the time. “This was your first half marathon, right?”
He asked me if I had taken any drugs. I said no. I’m not on meth or anything, I thought to myself. My body has calmed down by then. Robert came back. The doctor asked him if I took drugs. He said he doesn’t think so.
I’m taken to my own room, where I spent the day hooked up to an IV and vomiting. Hospital employees only spoke French, even when I responded in English. Nurses took blood. Once they knew I don’t speak French, they go mute.
The Nike glasses doctor came back. He said I had increased cardiac enzymes in my blood, which indicates a heart attack, but it’s probably just fatigue.
“Did you even drink water?” Yes, I replied.
“Well it’s your first marathon, right?” Yes.
“Well, this happens all the time. People don’t know how to race. They get dehydrated.” “You really should drink more water next time”.
I thought about all my long runs in Idaho that summer in 100°F weather at 3000 feet. I think to myself, How could I possibly be so dehydrated here, in 70°F heat at sea level, that I’m hospitalized? I was in disbelief. But he was a doctor. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.
They kept me overnight waiting for a cardiologist. When the technicians took me for the EKG they didn’t speak or tell me where I was going. The fluorescent lights ticked by again.
Finally, the cardiologist came and, in a thick francophone accent, but in English, said “There is nothing wrong with your heart. When you feel like you’re going to collapse next time, stop. If you would’ve stopped, you wouldn’t be here. Drink more water and don’t run that fast again”. I was discharged.
But more than wanting to prove I was a real athlete, I wanted to leave the hospital so I said, “Okay.” I asked if I could ever run again. The cardiologist said, “Yes, obviously. Just stop before you collapse.”
When I got home my Mom sent me an article about a girl that had died in the Cincinnati half marathon a few months prior. She was a soccer player, 22 years old, healthy. Died during the race from a heart attack. She had taken Sudafed the day before.
I learned that Sudafed is made of pseudoephedrine which shrinks your blood vessels, so you can decongest. Sudafed can constrict your heart and paired with intense exercise can be very dangerous. I was lucky, unlike the soccer player, that I didn’t have an underlying heart condition, so that I am here today.
I was discharged being told that I was to blame for my hospital visit. I should not have run fast, I should have drunk more water and I should have known to stop. Instead of finding the root of my problem, Sudafed, my doctors wrote it off as my own ignorance. Doctors are far more likely to downplay women’s medical issues than men’s, which has lethal repercussions. We need to question this bias and demand better healthcare. What if I was a healthy 20-year-old male and collapsed during a marathon? Would I have been discharged with no other medical instruction besides, “just don’t run fast again”?
This gender bias is further amplified by the language barrier. Montreal is a bilingual city, yet the fact that so few medical professionals spoke to me in my mother tongue created an unnecessary level of anxiety and fear. I was asked only twice if I had taken any drugs. If the doctors would have expanded “drugs” to ask, “which prescriptions, supplements, medicines I took”, I would have at least said my daily birth control pill and hopefully remembered Sudafed. This is partially a language issue. But it also underscores the epidemic of misdiagnoses disproportionately affecting women.
I still run today, but I don’t get the same level of escape and freedom I once cherished from my runs. I have to resist the urge to stop every time I feel short of breath or dizzy. I push past the voice of the doctors telling me it was my lack of training or neglecting to eat enough or drink water that caused my collapse. Our medical system’s fundamental oath is to help and care for their patients, not assign guilt or blame for their condition.
Story by Ana Earl, Montreal, Quebec