Runners who pay it forward – Peter Kirk
When Peter Kirk finally came home from the hospital in late spring 2021 – and was alone in his apartment for the first time; his kids at school, his wife walking the dog – he decided he could walk from the couch to the fridge to get a Gatorade. With all his might, he opened the refrigerator door and took out a drink. He took a few deep breaths and twisted the hood again and again, to no avail. It was too hard to open, so he put the unopened drink back in the fridge and headed back to the couch.
A few weeks earlier, Kirk had undergone a stem cell transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant – a procedure in which healthy cells from a donor are given to a patient with blood cancer to replace those that are sick – at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Reaching a cancer diagnosis
In 2001, when Kirk was 35 and living in London, he decided to have troublesome hip pain checked out. The blood test subsequent to that appointment revealed his diagnosis of neutropenia, which is a condition in which you have lower than normal levels of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells that your bone marrow makes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Kirk didn’t pay too much attention to the condition until a few years later, in 2007, when a hematologist warned him that neutropenia was a precursor to acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and brain. bone marrow. This doctor also told him that he had a 10-20% increased lifetime risk of developing aggressive blood cancer.
So when Kirk and his family moved to New York in 2010, he found a hematologist in town to monitor his neutropenia. Things were normal for the next decade until he thought he had food poisoning or a bad virus in October 2020. Because he had been vomiting for four days, he decided to contact his hematologist. After seeing Kirk’s blood work, his doctor called an ambulance to take him to the ER.
The road that led to a stem cell transplant
Kirk’s blood tests had revealed that he had developed acute myeloid leukemia, the blood cancer his doctor was originally concerned about. Within 48 hours of his visit to the emergency room, his condition rapidly deteriorated; he was transferred to the intensive care unit and intubated. Along with the leukemia diagnosis, doctors quickly realized that Kirk had bipulmonary pneumonia and could no longer breathe on his own.
Doctors warned his wife, Torun Kirk, that he may not survive another 24 hours. “At one point NYU’s ICU chief pulmonologist said to my wife, ‘Nothing seems to be working, so we’re throwing everything we have at her,'” Kirk says.
During his intubation, hematologists maintained that Kirk had to start chemotherapy immediately to survive, even if it made the drugs for his lungs less effective. So Torun made the decision for her husband to start chemotherapy.
The day after Kirk started chemo, his wife was told to spend as much time with him as possible. But he very slowly showed signs of improvement. After 16 days in intensive care, doctors moved Kirk to a regular room where he would stay for another two weeks. He remembers this period as hazy and uncertain if he would have a future.
Once released, Kirk spent the next five months receiving chemotherapy to treat leukemia. During these chemotherapy cycles, Kirk lost 35 pounds and presented himself as a shadow of who he once was. He writes in his blog: “I was a man with five marathons under his belt and, before my diagnosis, in pretty decent shape for a 50-year-old man. Before the diagnosis, I could get out and run three to six miles on a whim at any time. I decided to try running across the street – 100 feet. I could not. It just wasn’t doable.
Finally get some good news
At the end of his five months of chemotherapy, Kirk found he was in remission from the cancer. But he still got some bad news: Doctors told Kirk there was a high chance the leukemia would come back one day because of his neutropenia, and if and when it did, the therapies that worked this time wouldn’t necessarily work as well second time around.
But doctors had options for Kirk and told him he was qualified for a stem cell transplant, which could permanently cure his leukemia and neutropenia. The procedure, seemingly anticlimactic once it happens, requires high doses of chemotherapy and isolation before the operation to kill off any damaged blood cells.
“They chemotise you for 10 days to kill all your own stem cells in your bone marrow,” says Kirk, recalling the days before and after the stem cell transplant as some of his worst days, when his only goal was to go from bed in the four-legged chair once a day.
After cancer, a new goal
When Kirk finally got home and had all those hours to rest, think, and start recovering, an idea came to him. He would start running.
It had only been eight weeks since the transplant, but Kirk had made a deal with himself: he would run as long as he could and stop when he needed to.
On his first day of racing, Kirk ran 200 meters and then stopped. He remembers at first being disappointed that he hadn’t walked at least half a mile, but then remembered that he had just survived a transplant, beat aggressive blood cancer and had a family. The race will come in time, he told himself.
Back in his apartment after that first race, Kirk Googled the New York City Marathon and decided he was running it for the Memorial Sloan Kettering charity. Fred’s team. It was a big goal, as he says he only had 12 weeks to go from 200 meters to 42,200 meters. “The hardest part was going from 200 meters to a mile,” says Kirk. “My marathon training runs consisted of 23 training runs in total, where the first five runs were 200 meters and the first 10 were no longer than a mile.”
Those early races were more than marathon training, they were about Kirk fighting to not be a cancer patient and not letting cancer control his life. In Kirk’s 10th run, he finally hit the coveted one-mile mark – a milestone for the man who doctors say at one point had less than 24 hours to live.
Still recovering from the stem cell transplant, when Kirk increased his distance to five miles, he decided he would only run once a week to give his body time to rest and recover. But each week he added two more miles than the previous week.
“One time I felt like the Statue of Liberty spoke to me at length about all the immigrants and how hard they fought to come here and be here and of course I can continue to run,” he said. During another practice run, he recalled how tired he felt, but how much better it was to run outside than to lie in a hospital bed.
Run the New York Marathon
On the day of the New York City Marathon, five months after his transplant, Kirk crossed the finish line in 5:59. “I ran the whole marathon except I ran up the first half of the Queensboro Bridge because it felt so steep and I wanted to conserve my energy for the remaining ten miles – I hadn’t run any elevation on any of my short training so I thought it was smart for me to get on that bridge.”
The day before, he had his blood checked and kept the hospital bracelet for the race. Crossing the finish line, he snatched it, a symbol of a beginning and an end. The end of his cancer journey; the beginning of something he didn’t realize yet.
“For me, it wasn’t about running the marathon, it was about proving that I wasn’t beholden to cancer, to the hospital, and that I wasn’t a patient with a disease in terminal stage,” says Kirk.
Kirk acknowledges that he’s been very caring, but that his recovery is also about determination and fighting through the tough times. “Find your optimism, your purpose, your drive, and set small goals that point toward the future,” he says.
Another idea after the marathon
In the days following the New York City Marathon, Kirk felt those post-marathon blues and decided he needed another goal. He decided to start running again a few weeks after the marathon and found himself enjoying the half marathon distance.
It was on one of these 21.1 km races that he had another idea: he wanted to run 1,000 half-marathons (about two a week), on his own, around town, but with a aim.
He says his goal now is to run 1,000 half-marathons over the next 10 years, by the 10th anniversary of his stem cell transplant on June 9, 2031. (He has run more than 70 half-marathon distances so far.)
This year on June 12, a year after Kirk’s life-saving transplant, more than 2,000 doctors signed up to virtually run with Peter and support his cause to raise money for medical research. Of those donations, Kirk’s company, Sermo, a social networking platform for doctors, donated $250,000 to various medical research causes chosen by participating doctors.
The top five recipients of donations included Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the American Heart Association, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases and the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Run with Peter will become an annual event each year on the anniversary of its new life. And Kirk will soon announce his foundation which will serve as an umbrella for Run with Peter and other initiatives that raise funds for medical research and inspire others to achieve their goals.
To support Kirk’s mission to raise funds for medical research, donate to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
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