This 47-year-old runner survived a sudden stroke at 27 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. A decade later, she's still running.
Christy Kirk ran the 2023 Boston Marathon after surviving the 2013 bombing at the race.
She had run the 2013 race to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her recovery from a stroke.
Despite the adversity surrounding the marathon, Kirk's commitment to her sport never wavered.
Twenty years ago, a dentistry student and newlywed named Christy Kirk finished a training run for the Boston Marathon when the right side of her body went numb.
At 27, Kirk was a pillar of good health. She had just qualified for what would have been her first Boston Marathon and had been going on training runs each day after spending five to eight hours in school. She had never had a health emergency, and never expected to.
Then she went numb. Kirk had a stroke, caused by a small hole in her heart.
She survived the stroke and ran the Boston Marathon 10 years later to commemorate her recovery — only for the personal triumph to be marred by public tragedy. That year, 2013, two brothers set off bombs at the race's finish line, killing three people and injuring 200 others.
Kirk spoke to Insider recently after completing this year's Boston Marathon, her second time running Boston since 2013 and her 17th marathon overall. Thinking back to the blasts, which she heard from a nearby hotel, she said she initially thought the noise was to celebrate the marathon winner. She said she felt her patched-up heart "drop to the floor" when she looked out of the window and saw people running and and heard screaming amid clouds of smoke.
The adversity tested Kirk's commitment to her sport, but she never stopped running. Putting one foot in front of the other — physically and symbolically — is what Kirk relied on to get her through.
"A lot of bad things happened in life, unfortunately," she said, "but I do think if we just keep pushing forward and keep trying to do our best and live a healthy life, good things can happen after some of the bad."
A stroke at 27
When Kirk had the stroke in 2003, she was alone in a condo in Virginia. Her husband of only two months had been in Boston, looking for a house for the two of them.
She came back from a run feeling "a little off," thinking she had trained too hard. Moments later she went numb, and her eyes locked into place on one side. Panicking, she asked her neighbor, through slurred words, to drive her to the emergency room.
Kirk had a blood clot that had traveled to her brain through a small hole in her heart called an atrial septal defect. People are born with the condition and can live without problems if the hole is small enough.
But in Kirk's case, the condition formed a passageway between two chambers of the heart that isn't supposed to exist, allowing the blood clot to travel to her brain, causing tissue to die off.
The amount of dead tissue in her brain was so small that doctors couldn't spot it on a CT scan at first, so she had to wait a couple of days to get a diagnosis through an MRI scan.
An emotional journey back to running
To repair the hole, doctors initially suggested she get open-heart surgery. Kirk knew that such surgery would be risky and that the long recovery process would keep her from finishing school.
She instead elected for a then-new, minimally invasive procedure in which doctors use a mesh-like device to close the hole. Kirk was out of the hospital the day after her procedure, but she was told to go light on activity for six weeks.
Going six weeks without running wasn't easy for Kirk. Running was her therapy, and Kirk struggled with anxiety without it. She isolated herself from her friends and family and took time away from school.
"You don't think that's ever going to happen to you, and when it does then you realize that your health is pretty much the only thing that's important," she said. "If you don't have your health, what do you have?"
She slowly eased back into running. At first, she kept her phone close and didn't run too far from her husband in case of another emergency. "I did not feel secure in my health," she said.
But Kirk kept hitting the pavement. To date, she has run a couple of triathlons and 17 marathons — including the 2013 Boston Marathon, where her heart was tested in another way.
The Boston Marathon bombing
To celebrate 10 years since her recovery, Kirk ran the Boston Marathon in 2013 to raise money for stroke awareness. She finished the race and went to the Lenox Hotel to celebrate with other stroke survivors, surrounded by their families.
"Six, seven minutes after I got in the door, bombs went off on either side of the building," she said.
The next few hours were mayhem. The hotel first ordered everyone to barricade in the middle of the lobby with their phones off before sending guests outside to ambulances that transported them to safety, Kirk said.
"There were a hundred ambulances that descended on the city; all you could hear was just loud, loud, loud sirens," Kirk told Insider. "It was chaos."
Bt the marathon hadn't been her only plan for commemorating the 10th anniversary since her stroke, Kirk had planned to run "Boston 2 Big Sur," a package deal in which runners run a marathon in California two weeks after running in Boston.
Sleep-deprived and traumatized, Kirk thought about bowing out of the Big Sur challenge. But she decided to keep running.
"They honored the Boston victims at the start" of the Big Sur marathon, she said, "which was very emotional. We just stood there crying."
Back in Boston 20 years after her stroke and 10 after the bombing
Last month Kirk ran this year's Boston Marathon, where Abbott, the company that designed the tool used to patch her heart, sponsored a waiting area for her four children, her husband, and her brother to greet her at the finish line.
The race brought back sad emotions, but it was an overall happy day spent with family and in good health. Kirk says she tells her kids to eat right, stay active, and never take having a healthy body for granted.
"It's an indescribable feeling when your body won't behave and, no matter what your brain tells it to do, it's malfunctioning and you can't control it," she said. "I just feel really lucky and really happy that I've been able to stay healthy all these years."
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