Thursday, January 29, 2015

Going the Distance: Running for a Purpose

“I look at my leukemia as a blessing,” said University of South Alabama College of Medicine professor Dr. Phillip Fields. “Without it, I would have missed out on so much this country has to offer.”

Dr. Fields, associate professor of anatomy at the USA College of Medicine and an avid runner, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 and given five to seven years to live. He was told to give up his passion of running marathons for fear of hemorrhaging or a ruptured spleen.

Instead, he set out to run marathons across the country. “For a year, I followed the advice from the oncologist at MD Anderson,” he said, “but I ultimately decided that if I was going to die with leukemia, I would die doing what I loved – running marathons.”

Fortunately, my oncologist at the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, Dr. Thomas Butler, was always positive. Together we worked out a strategy to monitor whether running a marathon negatively impacted my condition.

Dr. Fields, who qualified for the Boston Marathon twice before his leukemia diagnosis, began traveling to places he had always wanted to see, but had always found an excuse not to do so. He no longer wanted those excuses to clutter his life – or to prevent him from living.

So, in February 2009, Dr. Fields began a journey to complete a marathon in every state plus Washington D.C. – 51 marathons in 47 months. “My goal allowed me to focus on training and planning trips with sightseeing each month,” he said. “There wasn't time to think about leukemia. Running was the only way to completely take my mind off the ticking bomb.” In spite of five months of chemotherapy and a fractured sacrum, Dr. Fields completed his goal in December 2012 at the Roxbury, Conn., Marathon. It was a goal that would become one of many.

“My parents always stressed to us that you shouldn’t start something that you don't intend to finish,” he said. “The completion of a marathon in all 50 states resulted in a strong feeling of accomplishment.”

Along the way, Dr. Fields thought he would again qualify for the Boston Marathon. However, cancer-related fatigue was a constant running companion and prevented him from doing so. “When I began my 50 states goal, Boston was supposed to be the final one,” he said.

Recently, Dr. Fields took on a fundraiser, the ALLY Foundation, to help him get back to Boston. By raising a minimum of $5,000, Dr. Fields will be given a racing bib for the 2015 Boston Marathon in April. “This particular marathon is unfinished business,” he said. “In a way, it is more significant this year than the first time I qualified in 1996.”

Now, Dr. Fields is using his story to inspire others. “I have received letters and e-mail responses from people who had given up hope, but decided to continue living life to the fullest until the end,” he said.

As a volunteer with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society’s First Connection Program, Dr. Fields is able to help others overcome some of the same challenges he faces. “I've been through the roller coaster experience of being told you have cancer, the denial, the anger, and the depression,” he said. “Then the wait and watch, the chemotherapy, the remission, and the continued wait and watch for its return. I believe I have a lot to offer people.”

He tells others these things – to live each day as if it is your last; to challenge your limits instead of limiting your challenges; and to stop procrastinating on things that aren't important. “Someone once said, ‘We spend so much time making a living that we forget to live,’” Dr. Fields said.

As a professor at the USA College of Medicine, Dr. Fields is also shaping the lives of future medical students, while at the same time giving them a lesson in determination and persistence. “Hopefully my students see my faith and drive in the face of adversity and realize they can do the same,” he said. “I hope they learn to become the best doctor they can possibly be.”

He says it is his belief in God and running that has helped him stay positive throughout his journey, which in turn, has strengthened his desire to give back even more to his students. “I always enjoyed teaching, but my passion toward students has grown exponentially since being diagnosed with leukemia,” he said.

Dr. Fields said he is overwhelmed with the support he has gotten from friends, faculty and the medical and physician assistant students.  “None of these people can begin to imagine how important the Boston Marathon is to me, but still they have been exceedingly generous,” he said. “They are all loved for what they have done for me."

After running the Boston Marathon this April, Dr. Fields hopes to complete marathons in all of the Canadian Provinces. So far, he’s completed eight of 10. His next goal is to run 100 marathons with leukemia by the end of this year.

To help Dr. Fields return to Boston, complete his book, and support a great charity, visit https://www.fundraise.com/activity/ally-foundation/team-ally-2015. Scroll down to Phillip Fields’ Road to Boston and click donate. The ALLY foundation is a national 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization that is working to end sexual violence in the United States. 

Click here to purchase a "Fields Tough" t-shirt. All proceeds will benefit Dr. Fields' Boston Marathon fund.

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