Emergencies happen anywhere, anytime, and sometimes medical professionals find themselves in situations where they are the only ones who can help. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a Medscape series telling these stories.
I was running my 25th New York City Marathon. It was 2018, and I almost pulled out of running that year. I wasn't myself, and maybe that's an understatement.
A month earlier, I had been involved in a malpractice case. I was found liable for $10 million. My colleagues didn't think I had done anything wrong, but the jury did. And the local newspapers made me look like a villain.
I was devastated. But my priest, my friends, and my family all told me, "You can't quit." So, I decided to run for them.
I started on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that morning with some friends from work. I usually listen to music as I'm running, but I didn't that year. I was just in my zone, enjoying the crowds. They're huge. Millions of people on the streets.
I was running well. I did half the race in an hour and 57 minutes. My family always meets me at mile 17, and I was almost there. I had reached 59th Street and was about to make the turn onto First Avenue.
That's one of the noisiest places in the marathon. There's a kind of tunnel, and with the crowd and the throng of runners, it's incredibly loud. But somehow, I heard somebody yell, "Help!"
Now, how I heard that, I don't know. And if I'd been listening to music like I always do, no way I would've heard it. I could swear it was an angel on my shoulder that said, "Turn around, dummy. You've got a person that needs your help to your left."
I turned around and about 30 feet behind me, I saw a woman waving her hands and a runner on the ground. I thought, Somebody fainted. I pushed through the crowd to get to them. The woman was crying, saying, "My friend went down to tie her shoe and she fell back. I think she's seizing or something."
I got down and tried to wake the other woman up. I lifted her legs up. But I quickly realized there was more to the story. I felt for pulses and couldn't feel them. I screamed for a defibrillator and started to do CPR.
Some volunteers and police started coming toward us. The police officers looked at me like, What's this guy doing? I explained that I was a physician, and one of them began helping me with the CPR. As we did that, someone brought a defibrillator.
Meanwhile, runners were going past, almost over us. The police officers were trying to create a barrier.
The machine gave the woman a shock, but we didn't get a response, so we resumed CPR. At that point, my legs began to cramp so badly I couldn't go on. So the police officer took over, and I yelled, "I need an ambu bag!" Somebody brought one, and I started giving her oxygen.
At that point, a paramedic team arrived with a bigger defibrillator. We shocked her again. And again. That time we got results, but she quickly went out again. The fourth time, we got her heart back and she started breathing on her own.
We finally got her into an ambulance. I wanted to go with them, but the woman's friend needed to get in, so there wasn't enough room.
And then they were gone, and I was just standing there.
A police officer put his arm around me. He said, "Doc, you're amazing. What do you need? Where can I take you?"
I said, "Take me? My wife is waiting for me at mile 17."
I took off and ran. When I got to my wife and kids, they were so worried. We all wear tracking devices, and they could see that I had stopped for more than 20 minutes.
I fell into my wife's arms and told her what had happened. I was crying. "I don't know what to do. I need to get to the hospital."
And she said, "No, you need to go finish the race."
So, I did. It was painful because of the cramps, but I was numb at that point. I was thinking about the woman the whole way. My time was 5 hours and 20 minutes.
As soon as I finished, I went to every police officer I could find, but nobody knew anything. Suddenly, I remembered my cousin. He had previously been the head of EMS for New York City. I called him. "Abdo, it's Ted, you've got to do me a favor."
"What?" he said. "Are you delirious from running the marathon?"
I told him what I needed. He called me back 5 minutes later and said, "Ted, what'd you do? Everybody wants to know who you are and where you are! The woman just went out again at New York Cornell. But they got her back, and they're bringing her up to the cath lab."
After every marathon that I run, we host a big party at our house. My family and friends and neighbors all celebrate while I'm dying on the couch. That night, my daughter told everyone the story of what happened.
But I was still not right. Still thinking about the malpractice suit.
Yes, I just did something great. But I'd recently been called the worst physician in the world. The distraction of the marathon was gone, and I was back to thinking, What am I going to do with my life? Who's ever going to want to see me again? I'm a pariah.
Everybody said, "Ted, what happened a month ago isn't you. What happened today was you."
I told them to leave it alone, but my daughter and my neighbor started calling people anyway. The next day I got a call from the local newspaper. It was the same journalist who had written about me from the trial. I told him I didn't want to talk. I was actually pretty nasty.
But my wife said, "Ted, what are you doing? That guy was trying to help you." So, I called back and apologized.
"Dr Strange, we knew that story wasn't right," he said. "We have to write this story."
After the article came out, I started getting more calls from the media. Channel 7 News and CBS News did segments. The New York Knicks invited us to a game and presented me with a watch. It was incredible. But I was also really embarrassed by it.
People started calling me a hero. I'm not a hero. I just did what I'm supposed to do, what I'm trained to do. Shame on me if I don't do that. Good guy and hopefully good physician, sure, but not a hero.
I also give credit to the City of New York Police Department, the FDNY, and the volunteers. Without them, I couldn't have done what I did. It was a true team effort.
A few weeks later, the woman went home to Minnesota. She'll never run a marathon again, but she's still alive to this day. It turned out she had a single lesion called the "widow-maker" lesion. She was in perfect health and had just completed an ultramarathon a few months before; but she had a genetic predisposition. She still calls me every December to thank me for another Christmas.
One year after this whole thing, almost to the date, I got a call from my attorney. "The court just threw out the malpractice verdict," he said. "You didn't do anything wrong."
I'm a man of faith. And I believe all this happened for a reason. Maybe God was sending me a message, and that's why I heard a call for help on 59th Street in my 25th marathon among millions of people in a crowd.
I ran the marathon the next year. And when I got to that spot, I stopped and reflected. Nobody knew why I was standing there, but I knew. To this day, I could take you to that spot.
I turn 65 next July, and I plan to keep on running the race.
Theodore Strange, MD, is chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital, associate ambulatory physician executive of the Staten Island Region, and an internal medicine and geriatric medicine physician with Northwell Health.
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Cite this: A Mid-Marathon Cardiac Arrest, an MD's Crisis of Confidence - Medscape - Nov 16, 2023.