Going the Distance: How a Nurse-Patient Bond Helped Marathoner Get Her Life Back

By Mary Frances Emmons, Editorial Contributor

Marathoner Kelley Duell found her calling before she ever laced up a pair of trainers.

She had met a guy — now her husband — who was a runner. “I absolutely was not, but I said I was because he was so cute,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t help it — he’s the sweetest guy, and I wanted to run with him.”

Fast forward a couple of years. Now a mother of two, Duell was stressed out. “I used it for release. I’d put them in a double stroller and just run.”

One day she saw an ad for the 2016 New York City marathon. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I was absolutely hooked from that point on.”

By 2019, she had run many marathons and had set her sights on one of the most exclusive: London, an almost impossible dream for American runners because admission is tightly restricted.

Duell, 51, would eventually board that plane, but not before a health crisis would test the qualities that made her a marathoner — resilience, determination and a fierce belief in herself. Along the way, she would forge one of the most important friendships of her life.

I’m OK, I’m Training

Nurse and patient as runners

“As a runner, when you feel something’s not right, you have a tendency to blame it on training,” Duell admits. Super tired? “I’m training for a race.” Having trouble breathing? “It’s just because I’m training.” Heart rate escalated? “I’m training.”

And she was training — for her miracle race, the London marathon. Against all odds, she had been admitted, and race day was three weeks away.

Ironically, Duell’s conditioning masked the fact that she was developing a severe lung infection. Taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a collapsed lung. Within two days, she deteriorated so rapidly that doctors transferred her to Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Right away, doctors there inserted a tube between her ribs to drain the fluid that was preventing Duell from breathing. She was also suffering from empyema, in which large amounts of pus collect between the lung and inner chest wall. “It was really bad. I had abscesses all over my lung, and they had to go in and cut them out,” she says.

An Unexpected Gift

“So, I woke up and it was my birthday,” Duell recalls. “The ORMC nurses had put up a ‘Happy Birthday’ sign. … it chokes me up just thinking about it. They went above and beyond for me, all of them.”

Sick as she was, Duell’s first question was predictable: When can I run? Her nurses did their best to cheer her up when Duell told them about the race of a lifetime — the one she was missing. “They said, we’ve got somebody you should meet.”

When Bec walked in, she was like, ‘We’re going to run Boston together,’ and I believed her. She had so much faith in me, a bright spot in a very dark part of my life. – Kelley Duell

Rebecca Whitman, 42, a clinical assistant nurse manager at ORMC’s Cardio-Thoracic Surgical Unit, has been with Orlando Health for nearly 20 years. She is also a marathoner. Whitman had just qualified for Boston, a race Duell had run more than once. Duell wasn’t her patient, but Whitman would prove to be the medicine Duell needed.

“She dropped everything to come and speak to me,” Duell says. “It gives you an idea the kind of person she is. She can walk into a room and she just soothes you.”

Whitman laughs a bit when she remembers hearing about Duell. “Runners have a habit of talking about running, and that’s all we talk about. We’re a little bit obsessed — everybody else is a little sick of hearing it.”

Whitman was incredulous that Duell had somehow kept training, as sick as she was. “I still can’t believe she could run through that.”

At that point, Duell was feeling pretty low. “When Bec walked in, she was like, ‘We’re going to run Boston together,’ and I believed her,” Duell says. “She had so much faith in me, a bright spot in a very dark part of my life.”

Successes Large and Small

Duell, who ran the Chicago marathon six months after surgery, invited Whitman to join her running group. They ran a couple of races together. “Having somebody who knows your story and is there to help you and push you, that’s a leg up in competition,” Whitman says. “It’s important.”

Then COVID hit, and Boston was canceled that year. But in 2021, Whitman’s prediction came true. Although in different age categories, they both ran Boston and did well enough to qualify for the Wanda Age Group World Championships for runners over 40, held concurrently with the top six marathons in the world: Berlin, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Chicago — and London.

“The way we met, and how we got to London — it’s what dreams are made of,” Duell says. Of 7,000 runners, only 700 spots are reserved for foreigners. “And she and I were two of them.”

But Duell had one more hurdle. The marathon was scheduled for a Sunday; Duell was to fly the Thursday before. Instead, Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida that day. Duell scrambled to get out early, but her family could not. Thankfully, Whitman and her husband were already in London.

“They took me under their wing the entire time,” Duell says. “We did our shake-out run together, did high tea, did the London Eye — we had such an incredible experience.”

Whitman even waited for her at the finish line. “It was so nice to have her there when my family was over here,” Duell says. “She’s just the kindest soul.”

Whitman called it a “fantastic race” for each of them. Duell ran her first sub-3:30 marathon — a personal record — while Whitman pulled off her second-best time, 3:21:26.

If Duell runs the Berlin marathon this fall, the pair plans to take on one more challenge together in 2024 — the Tokyo marathon, which will complete the “big six” races for each woman, a feat matched by fewer than 1,000 runners a year.

“There aren’t too many women in their 50s doing what she’s doing, who have pushed through what she has,” Whitman says. “It’s a testament to how strong she really is.”

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