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April 24, 2014

Walton woman inspires by running Boston Marathon

By Jessica Reynolds Staff writer
The Daily Star

---- — About nine blocks away from the hospital where she received a life-saving liver transplant 23 years ago, a woman from Walton crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Lisa Russell, 32, was chosen to run the marathon as a representative of the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Unit of the Massachusetts General Hospital, a facility she knows all too well. It was there that she received her liver transplant at the age of eight after her own liver suddenly and inexplicably failed. Years later, as a teenager, Lisa was treated for cancer at the same hospital.

Russell said she finished the 26.2-mile race in four hours, 22 minutes and 56 seconds and was joined by the hospital’s head oncologist, Dr. Howard Weinstein, who cared for her as a girl. She raised more than $9,000 for the Pediatric Oncology Unit where she had been treated, she said. This was her first time running a marathon, she said, and it wasn’t easy. The last five miles of the race were a challenge, but the supportive crowd, and her goal, kept her going.

“I tried to just take in the whole atmosphere,” Russell said. “When the race got tough, I was remembering my own medical history, what I’ve been through, why I’m on the team, how I got here and all the children that are still fighting their battles with cancer. The fact that I would see my family and friends at mile 20 kept me going, too.”

Russell’s mother, Candice, said she and her husband, Renwick, of Walton, traveled to Boston to watch their daughter run in the race. Lisa had thought about running the marathon last year, Candice said, but ultimately decided she wasn’t ready. Judging by her time this year, Candice said, Russell would likely have been crossing the finish line when the bombs went off last year. She said the security presence this year was “amazing,” and described the overall atmosphere as “extremely upbeat.” She and her husband were very proud of their daughter, she said. 

“We couldn’t believe it,” Candice Russell said. “At mile 20, she still looked good! She passed us and smiled and gave us the thumbs up. It was emotional. Throughout her life, she has always just kept going no matter what, and she did the same thing in the marathon.”

This wasn’t always easy, Candice said, especially during the medical “nightmare” they were faced with more than two decades ago. After Lisa’s liver failed in 1990, she and her mother traveled to Boston, where they experienced a number of promising leads and subsequent setbacks regarding a possible donor. The 8-year-old was finally paired with a liver from a 14-year-old boy who was killed in an accident in Boston, Candice said. After her daughter’s surgery, the two flew back to Walton for Christmas, only to have the young girl’s body begin to reject the organ just days after. But with treatment, the organ was usable. 

Because of all the medicines Lisa had taken as a child, her immune system was suppressed and extremely weakened, Candice said. At the age of 15, she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and headed back to Boston to undergo chemotherapy. Candice said the entire experience was surreal, but Lisa’s unwavering strength, and the town of Walton’s showering of love, prayers and support, got them through.

“When she was doing her chemotherapy, we’d go in on Wednesday nights, she’d have treatment on Thursday and stay through Friday and she’d be back in school on Monday morning,” Candice said. “She was amazing. We’re just so proud of her.”

Russell now has her doctorate and works as a medical researcher at the National Institute of Health in Baltimore, where she is studying the immune system, she said. Although she returns to Boston each year for a routine health check-up, she was happy to visit the city that nursed her back to health twice, but on different terms this time.

“It was exciting to go and support the city that I’ve grown to love,” Russell said. “... I now very much want and am truly excited to help fight pediatric cancer one step at a time by running in the 2014 Boston marathon.”