Kathleen Hammett smiled and her eyes became glassy as she watched her daughter trying to spell out the letters of her name on a piece of paper.
"She's about to turn 4," Hammett said.
It's not a miracle that Clara, a cheery girl with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, is about to celebrate another birthday. But it's nothing short of one that Hammett, who suffered a hemorrhage after giving birth four years ago this weekend and battled breast cancer less than a year later, could watch her girl grow up.
On Sunday, the 40-year-old from Hollywood, Md., will run in the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis as one of the 25 Medtronic Global Heroes — runners with implanted medical devices who overcame serious medical conditions.
"Without running," Hammett said, "I don't think I would have come back."
She started by running from one mailbox to another, pushing Clara in a stroller, trying to build up a stamina she had very little of. Hammett had been broken down, pushing through a life that had offered more struggle than hope.
Even before the aerobics teacher had her third daughter, Hammett and her husband, Mike, had felt pain. Their first daughter, Grace, was born without vision because of an arachnoid cyst in her brain. She has full vision now. Ella, the couple's second daughter, came between the losses of two stillborn babies.
But Clara's birth in October 2007 brought the family to its collective knees. While Hammett had started hemorrhaging almost immediately after delivering, doctors hadn't discovered the internal bleeding until three days later.
By that time, Hammett had already lost so much blood that her hemoglobin level was three times lower than average. She shouldn't have still been alive, according to doctors. But after successfully going through surgery, she woke up with 57 staples lining the middle of herchest.
Because of the pressure the hemorrhage put on her organs and surrounding nerves, Hammett could no longer control her bladder and was in constant discomfort. For months, she relied on nerve medication and catheters. Then, just seven months after giving birth, Hammett learned she might have breast cancer.
"The kids had nightmares," Hammett said. "That was the worst part of me. For all of us, mortality was a reality."
Within weeks, Hammett had a double mastectomy.
"By comparison and in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn't that bad," Hammett said. "But at that point I was so beat down."
A lifelong fitness instructor, Hammett needed to find a way to get active again. She took it easy, gradually moving from walking to jogging to running. Eight weeks after the surgery, Hammett could run two to three miles. Another eight weeks and she had progressed to eight-to-10 mile jogs four times a week.
But even with her newfound love of running and recovery from breast cancer, Hammett still had her bladder problems and still had to use a catheter to go to the bathroom, even if it meant during one of her runs.
"I've done 10 miles, my bladder starts to hurt and it won't empty," Hammett said. "I'm out climbing in the poison ivy and the leaves, trying to use the catheter and trying not to get an infection. I had to do it three or four times a day."
Finally, her doctor referred her to Dr. Cheryl Iglesia at the Washington Hospital Center. Iglesia recommended that Hammett try "InterStim Therapy," a treatment that uses an internal device placed through surgery to help alleviate a communication problem between the brain and the nerves that control the bladder.
"I called her [right after the surgery to implant the device] and she was just crying," Iglesia said. "She was just so ecstatic to finally have some normalcy. … She's an inspiration to a lot of friends and a lot of women."
With her bladder problems taken care of, and after receiving a nudging from her friend, Jen, Hammett started training for her first race — the 2009 Cherry Blossom 10 mile in Washington. But she didn't stop there. Just a week later, Hammett finished second out of 120 women in a local 5K.
In just three years, she has completed one 50K (31.1 trail miles), two marathons, one half marathon (in 10 inches of snow and ice), one 10-mile race, one 10K race and five 5K races.
As a member of the "Global Heroes" group this weekend, Hammett will receive tours of the facilities and the city, before racing in Sunday's marathon together. Hammett said it's the one race she plans on taking as long as possible to finish, soaking in every last moment and enjoying the presence of people that endured similar struggles.
"After what I went through," Hammett said, "it still blows my mind."
Her story still stands as a testament for others facing the same hardships. Iglesia often gives Hammett's contact information out to patients seeking comfort. And she hasn't given up her love for teaching aerobics and spinning.
"Her friendliness, her optimism, her joy in life and with life is so contagious," said Molly Schmeiser, who takes Hammett's spinning class at World Gym in southern Maryland. "When I found out what she had been through and what she was still going through, I was stunned. She encourages me, inspires me. She's a true hero among us."
Kathleen Hammett looks at her life now as a blessing. Grace, her oldest daughter, overcame her ocular motor apraxia and could see for the first time at 8 years old. They call her 'Amazing Grace." It could also be a saying for the family — Kathleen and Mike, Grace (9), Ella (7) and Clara (4) — that is still together through it all.
It's Hammett's perseverance through those hardships, and her excitement for the future, that sticks out to so many of her friends. Everyday, Hammett pictures herself shaking up a soda bottle and popping the top off in celebration. She will join 24 others who have faced similar adversity for this weekend's event.
She's just happy she can run.
"After everything's that happened, I wake up every morning truly lucky to be alive on so many levels," Hammett said. "It's showing that I'm still willing to take advantage of that life and that breath, that heart-pumping and that blood-pumping. I want to feel it, I want to use it and I want to squeeze out every last bit of energy that I can."
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