Boston Marathon runner Helen van Riel wants to support the medical professionals who kept her “favorite person in the world” alive and healthy.
That’s why the 27-year-old high school biology teacher is participating in this year’s event as a member of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Emergency Response Marathon Team. Helen’s favorite person is her mother, Susan van Riel, who twice received specialized care from the hospital, including emergency room treatment after suffering severe complications from chemotherapy.
“I knew Mass General had a marathon team and I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them,” Helen says. “Mass General made sure my family’s favorite person was well. When I got a spot on the team, I burst into tears. It all came back: all the things Mass General has done to make sure our family is thriving and doing well.”
Mass General There for Mom
Susan now lives in Hamilton Parish, Bermuda, with her husband, Boy van Riel. Susan, who is English, and Boy, who is Dutch, met in Bermuda in the 1980s. They eventually moved to Canton, Mass., to raise Helen and their other daughter, Grace, before returning to live and work in Bermuda three years ago.
Helen was in middle school in 2002 when Susan needed a double valve replacement to mend a heart murmur that developed after she had rheumatic fever as a child. Helen had heard stories about her mother’s childhood illness, but seeing her stay at Mass General while recuperating from a significant surgery had terrified her and she hoped she could soon forget about hospitals.
Susan recovered and the van Riels resumed life. Helen graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and worked as a fundraiser at the American Cancer Society. She liked the job because it allowed her to honor the memory of several relatives who had died from cancer.
In 2013, cancer again came too close to home. Susan was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Most early-stage CLL patients don’t receive treatment and instead are closely monitored so they can avoid the side effects of chemotherapy and drug therapy. But only six months after the diagnosis, Susan needed chemotherapy. That summer, she experienced life-threatening complications.
One night in June, 2013, Susan became seriously ill from complications that included sepsis, which is caused by an immune system that’s weakened by cancer treatment.
Specialists Work in Harmony
“She needed to be kept away from other patients,” Helen recalls. “There was something wrong with her immune system; you could tell it was complicated. I didn’t know until then there was an acute ICU (at Mass General). She needed a high level of help that night, and they had the space to escalate her treatment.”
Susan went home a week later, only to again need ER treatment at Mass General in August after suffering complications from another round of chemotherapy. She stayed in ICU for a month. “It was a very hard place for all of us to be,” Helen says.
But Helen knew her mother was in good hands after watching Mass General doctors from the ER, ICU, Cardiology and Infectious Diseases divisions work in close harmony to improve Susan’s health. She was also delighted to see Igor Palacios, MD, a cardiologist who had previously treated Susan after her heart surgery, return 11 years later to check her medical charts.
“I was blown away because he wasn’t on her case,” Helen says. “That gave my dad and us peace of mind.”
Boston Marathon Thank You
It’s been three years since Susan was discharged from Mass General after her second battle with chemotherapy complications. She is now taking oral chemotherapy with few complications. That has given her the strength and time to help out at a UNESCO World Heritage Site and volunteer for a women’s club and a Bermuda health council that focuses on cancer.
“Living in Bermuda is really helpful,” Helen says. “She’s in a nice warm climate, and she receives excellent care from an oncologist there. For us, it’s about maintaining her blood cell counts and avoiding complications so she can continue to live a healthy life.”
Meanwhile, Helen switched careers and now teaches biology at Oliver Ames High School in Easton, Mass. She ran the Hartford Marathon in 2014 and Boston Marathon in 2016. The 2017 Boston Marathon will be her second run for charity.
Helen didn’t think twice about giving back to Mass General. She says she “can’t put into words” the gratitude she and her family have for the hospital.
John Hancock and Mass General Celebrate 20 Years of Marathon Partnership
This year marks the 20th anniversary of John Hancock’s partnership with the Mass General Marathon Program. John Hancock provides Mass General runners with bib numbers for the race.
Since it was formed in 1998, Mass General’s Pediatric Oncology Team has raised more than $12 million to support research and child life activities for children with cancer. In 2014, John Hancock worked with the Boston Athletic Association to award the hospital additional bib numbers to create the Emergency Response Team. That effort acknowledged the lifesaving response of hospital personnel following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Since then, that team has raised more than $1 million for the hospital’s emergency preparedness and disaster training.
In addition to these teams, runners who obtained their own bib numbers for the Boston Marathon will run for the Miles for Mass General program, which raises funds for hospital programs that are close to their hearts. Programs being represented by 2017 runners include Botswana Oncology Global Outreach, Caring for a Cure, Cystic Fibrosis, Down Syndrome and the Lurie Center for Autism.
To learn more about the Mass General Boston Marathon Program, please visit our website.