RICHMOND, Va. — As a teenager growing up in Chesapeake, Mary Becker hated exercise.
The one sport in which she begrudgingly participated — at her mother's insistence — was crew.
After graduating college, she found herself unemployed for a brief time and started running. Not out of a sense of fitness, but out of economical convenience.
"Because I wasn't employed at the time, and so running was free and took up a lot of time. That's no joke why I started," Becker said.
Much to her surprise, she enjoyed running and fitness in general — so much that she also became a big fan of CrossFit, which involves several elements of different exercise and training.
She also ran a marathon back in 2014, but shortly thereafter she began having issues with her stamina.
"I was getting more and more winded easily at the gym," said Becker. "I couldn't walk up the steps to my second floor apartment without having to sit down and rest. Obviously, at that point, it's not just a matter out-of-shape."
It took two-and-a-half years for doctors to finally get to the cause of her problem.
Becker suffered from pure red blood cell aplasia. Her immune system was attacking her body's ability to produce red blood cells. A condition so rare, it affects less than one out of every 100,000 people.
She saw six different hematologists and tried several different treatments, from various forms of chemotherapy to steroids. She was getting blood transfusions every two weeks.
"Obviously after a certain point, you're like, none of these treatments are working," she said.
It was determined she would need a stem cell transplant — a procedure that would require her to return to Virginia so her family could help her through the surgery and long recovery. That's where fate intervened and she became a patient of Dr. Gary Simmons who made an immediate connection with both Becker and her family.
"The first time my parents and I met with him, my dad was wearing a CrossFit shirt from my gym and Dr. Simmons, right off the bat, before even addressing my health, said I do CrossFit. Let's talk about it," Becker said,
"We sort of connected very quickly with fitness in general," Simmons, a hematologist-oncologist at VCU Massey Cancer Center, said.
Turns out, Simmons is an ultra-marathoner who understood and shared Becker's passion for fitness. And he was the first doctor who actually encouraged her to keep up any kind of workout during her recovery
"That completely shifted the tone of my whole medical treatment journey after that. It was huge," said Becker.
"People are not in a bubble anymore. They're walking the halls and we know the benefits of exercise and fitness. We encourage that," added Simmons.
Becker's recovery continued at an advanced pace. She had her transplant in May 2019. She was running one mile by August.
Two years later, she began training to run the Richmond marathon and jokingly asked Simmons if he would join her, not really expecting him to say yes.
"I emailed her and said are you really doing this, because I probably need to sign up. And I signed up," said Simmons.
"Literally, five or six days before the race, he texted me and said, 'Hey I signed up, here we go. Ok?'" said Becker.
Doctor and patient started and finished the marathon together, providing encouragement and support for something neither of them really considered possible when they first met.
"Yourself, five years ago would die to know that you're going to run a marathon again," reflected Becker. "I was very happy to be done and to have done it."
"I was emotional because this is an amazing story," Simmons said. "There are people that have transplants, and people who do marathons, but I've never seen the combination."
"She had this journey of becoming a lawyer, and working, and having a life, and exercising, and for some reason, that was taken from her," Simmons continued. "Our job here was to restore that and give her that back. We've done that, and so far it looks like she's taking all advantage of that as she should."
"I don't look at my illness like, obviously it's a burden and I wish it hadn't happened, but so many things came from it that I enjoy now in my life. I'm able to look at it with a more appreciative lens," Becker said.
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