By LAURA YOUNG The Sudbury Star
Paul McNeil needed to know he was a runner again. Not a person who nearly died waiting for a liver transplant, nor someone who had defied the odds with hemophilia and the once-tainted Canadian blood system.
No, he simply wanted to be a runner again.
In the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon on Oct. 19, he ran the half marathon (21 kilometres) event, aiming to finish in two hours. Anything faster would be bonus, he says. He finished in one hour 42 minutes, 10 minutes slower than he used to run. Still, his legs felt great. It was one of those really good runs, he says.
"For me, it was a comeback to my life as a runner and just as a person," he says. "When I finished I thought to myself, 'I'm back.' "
Maybe some people thought he had returned too early. After all, he had been so sick he and his wife Kathy figure he had about one month left to live. But as soon as the doctor gave the go-ahead in the fall of 2007, he was running.
"The doctor showed me the X-rays and said, 'Your liver is stapled in place. It's not going to fall out,' " McNeil, 37, says.
McNeil has already run eight marathons. It was his way of staying a stride or two, if not more, ahead of hemophilia, the chronic condition he had battled since birth.
But in late 2005, something serious was brewing. McNeil, a Sudbury nurse, went back to work after parental leave for his and Kathy's third daughter. He wasn't well: he couldn't stay awake at work, couldn't run, couldn't eat and couldn't concentrate.
Having been through the Canadian blood system of the 1980s, he already had hepatitis B and C, but they and McNeil had come to terms. In 2006, doctors diagnosed hepatitis D, an eastern European strain he picked up from unscreened blood products. As his liver deteriorated the D progressed. In the fall of 2006, he started treatment. When it failed, he stopped in early 2007 and iting for a liver transplant. The marathoner needed a cane, sometimes a walker, to get around.
For Kathy, the worst was driving to Paul and never knowing what state she'd find her husband: was he home on the floor bleeding? Was he up and energetic? Or, was she driving to Toronto -- again -- after the Sudbury hospital had packaged and shipped him by air.
In June, a close friend offered a live liver donation (in which a lobe is taken). The operation revealed, however, their livers would not fit perfectly. It was crushing news for everyone. By July, they had accepted he would likely not make it.
Then on Aug. 9, 2007 the McNeils' phone rang long distance, then the cellular, then the transplant pager.
McNeil was asked if he wanted the liver, something he used to find odd, but people do refuse, he says. Transplant means change. For him, it meant not being a hemophiliac anymore, "which is something that is completely foreign to me."
Still, it was an easy decision.
"This is why I fought so hard to survive," he says.
The complex surgery on Aug. 10 lasted more than 10 hours. Doctors picked out the crumbling pieces of McNeil's liver. When all was reconnected, the donated liver came alive, filling with blood and color.
When he awoke he asked for his first coffee since he had been sick and soon told Kathy he'd never felt better. Which was true. One role of the liver is to set the clotting agents in motion for the blood. McNeil's old liver didn't do that. With the fresh, healthy liver, his hemophilia is cured.
When he used to fall down there was a big production of IV medicine, ice and rest. Now he has to suck it up like the rest of us, Kathy jokes.
McNeil seems laid back about it all, reciting the hard facts as if he is talking about another patient. He learned to let some things not be a big deal. He had to focus on just enjoying what could have been his final months with the family, and for awhile it sure seemed like that. That way of thinking has stayed.
"It was one of those things that you can't fight it," he says. "Well, you can choose to fight the whole 'I'm not going to be sick.' Or you can just accept it and go with what cards you're dealt and live with it and make the best of it."
His return to running was humbling to say the least; athletes hate sucking wind. But in his running lies support for the people in the hemophilia community who helped him. The story of his liver transplant is for the organ donor and transplant community.
"This is the way to get the message out that it actually works," he says.
McNeil and his older brother Dave have always pushed their limits.
As youngsters they raced their bikes to the smokestack at what was then Inco and touch the stack before security got hold of them.
That fierce drive was brothers being brothers, but Paul also thinks it's about that thing everyone has that keeps them alive and kicking. "I look at Dave, he's a phenomenal swimmer. That's his thing. Sure I can blow past him in a run, but he can swim faster than me."
It's also about showing how you can live through something, he says.
"It means you pick up the pieces and you change your life a little bit. The pieces might be different but you can still put them together and go forward."
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