Surgery makes Boston dream come true


Every Boston Marathon has a defining story line, be it elation, heartbreak or frustration. The pace and distance and yes, the mental taxation will break the strongest of runners. For Dr. John Senatore, just being there, excluding the fact that this is the centennial renewal of America's greatest footrace, will soon become a pleasurable reality.

It was something he believed was physically impossible. Then, while scanning television, he happened upon a story related to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the account of a new type of surgery that would correct an irregular heartbeat.

Senatore was a sprinter at Weston (Mass.) High School, but that was the extent of it. His heart would run away with itself when he asked it to do more. Even a classroom exam in school, a form of cerebral yet sedentary competition, would accelerate his heartbeat. If he sat down too quickly, the problem would be there. Even a heavy dinner instigated the same runaway condition.

Involvement in long-distance running was out of the question. But now he's about to run in, not watch, one of the world's epic marathons. Before, he could only be a spectator. Now, he's a participant.

His condition has changed drastically, thanks to the surgery performed by Dr. Thomas Guarnieri, who corrected a condition that was thought to be kept under control only by medication. Now Senatore is a prized patient, twice completing the New York City Marathon, and it's on to Boston for what was earlier considered to be an impossible goal.

The Boston Marathon stands alone but, more importantly, represents a profound personal meaning for Senatore. As a child, he grew up watching the event. It was a family tradition, the thing to do. His parents would take him to a location near the halfway point to enjoy the highlight of the Patriots' Day holiday -- the historic road race from Hopkinton to Boston, a route of 26 miles, 385 yards, through such pleasant-sounding but punishing checkpoints as Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Auburndale, then to Heartbreak Hill, Brighton, Brookline and, finally, the finish line.

From practicing podiatry in Baltimore to returning home to Boston, more than 30 years later, to run in the grueling, road-pounding effort is an accomplishment in itself.

After education at Weston High, the Vermont Academy, Wilkes College and the California College of Podiatry, Senatore established a practice in Baltimore. He operates two offices and is on the staff of the Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center. His profession is an ideal fit with his avocation, allowing him to treat his own marathon-induced foot problems and not even send himself a bill.

It's an unnatural undertaking, to ask the legs and body to carry you 26 miles and, don't forget, the 385 yards. But now Senatore prepares for Boston, a happy homecoming. "My wife, our 3-year-old, my mother, sisters and brothers, old neighborhood friends will all be there to watch me in the crowd of runners," he says.

"I expect it to be one of the most memorable days of my life. Just to do it and be a part of it means so much. Growing up, I never considered there'd be a remote chance that at 39, or any age, I'd be able to qualify. The memories of all those races I watched have never faded."

That he's going to be involved with 40,000 other runners, which makes it more of a momentous celebration in its 100th gala provides an incalculable dimension of enthusiasm.

"I owe it all to Dr. Guarnieri," he says. "Irregular heartbeats have bothered untold thousands. I lived with it until I was 35 years old and had the operation. The discomfort made you feel as if someone was sitting on your chest. Then you'd give yourself a carotid neck massage, even splash cold water in your face, to try to ease the heartbeat."

The procedure Guarnieri helped perfect involved inserting a catheter to bring about an accessory pathway to the heart, which allowed the organ to attain its normal rhythm.

Senatore expounds enthusiastically on the result, adding, "After what was then a new surgical option for patients, I was running within six weeks. I was able to sustain the pressure associated with distance running and found a stamina I never had before.

"There's a photo in Dr. Guarnieri's office that shows me crossing the finish line in a marathon. Right there is absolute picture proof of what he was able to do for me."

Senatore knows he's not about to challenge the Boston Marathon leaders but is elated to be a member of the Baltimore Road Runners Club and will be raising funds for the American Liver Foundation.

His regular training program totals about 35 miles per week. If a foot problem occurs, he makes a self-diagnosis and doesn't need to be told how to treat himself.

The Boston Marathon means more than he can put into words. In a way, he'll be climbing a mountain he never thought he would have a chance to challenge. The 100th running will be a spectacular experience. But for Dr. John Senatore, it's a family reunion, a homecoming and the realization of how far medical science has allowed him to run.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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