A year after a stroke, Mundelein man calls marathon 'the ultimate test of my recovery'
At first glance, the couple jogging on the lakeside gravel path is fairly unremarkable.
Average height. Good looks. He's pushing a stroller with a cute baby. To anyone looking, it's a typical suburban family out for a late-afternoon run in a forest preserve.
But then you notice they're wearing matching gray T-shirts. Shirts with personal messages on the back.
Stroke survivor, his says.
Life saver, hers says.
Because 13 months after Mundelein resident Kirk Disrude suffered a debilitating stroke, 13 months after a then-pregnant Beth Disrude rushed her husband to a hospital, that's what they are.
And this Sunday, after a recovery a person of faith might call miraculous, they're running in the 35th annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
"It's something I never thought I would do," said Disrude, a 39-year-old physical education teacher, wrestling coach and badminton coach at Maine East and Maine South high schools in Park Ridge. "It's the ultimate test of my recovery."
The run will be Kirk Disrude's first marathon. His wife has run one before, a few years ago.
Beth Disrude smiles broadly when she talks about the race, shrugging off questions about the distance and other potential obstacles. What's a long run compared to learning how to live again?
"I couldn't be more proud," Beth Disrude said before one of their final training runs last week. "He's so motivated to do this."
What is stroke?
Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and a leading cause of adult disability, according to the National Stroke Association.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. In either case, brain cells die and brain damage occurs.
Strokes can affect speech, movement, memory and other functions. The severity of the brain damage depends on the location of the stroke and how much the brain is damaged, according to the association's website, stroke.org.
Some stroke survivors recover completely. Others suffer partial paralysis or lose the ability to speak.
Disrude was getting ready for work when his stroke hit. It was Sept. 6, 2011 — a date neither he nor his wife will ever forget.
Disrude said the stroke "felt like a rubber band snapped in my head."
He lost his balance, and "everything spun." He fell. Realizing something was terribly wrong, he called for his wife.
"I don't remember anything until three days after that," Disrude said.
Beth Disrude reacted quickly and drove Disrude to the closest hospital, Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. Doctors there diagnosed the stroke.
Wenda Hunt was the Condell stroke coordinator who saw Disrude in the emergency room. She remembers he was dizzy, couldn't stand and was unable to open his eyes.
"It was pretty devastating," said Hunt, now a clinical pharmacist at Condell.
Disrude spent a few days in the hospital and then underwent weeks of rehabilitation at the Wheeling branch of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Highland Park was treated at the main facility in Chicago after his own stroke earlier this year.
Younger than most stroke patients and otherwise in good health, Disrude learned his stroke was caused by a previously undetected heart condition. Surgery to repair the problem was performed in November.
Ask Disrude how he's feeling compared to before the stroke, and he'll give you a somewhat philosophical answer.
"It's just 100 percent better than yesterday," Disrude said. "I can never compare to who I was before the stroke."
Beth Disrude called her husband's stroke and recovery a humbling experience that's strengthened their relationship.
"I think it's done nothing but bring us closer," she said. "We're the only two people who know what each other have been through."
The road back
Disrude said he had to learn to walk and speak again, among other tasks. Learning to eat again was a particular struggle.
"I felt so trapped in my own body," he recalled.
As a gym coach, Disrude tries to motivate teenagers to do better and try harder every day. After the stroke, he had to turn that inspiration inward and push himself.
"It was a true challenge," he said.
When Disrude returned to work in December 2011, school administrators assigned a substitute teacher to accompany him during classes, to be there if he felt tired or required a break.
Disrude doesn't need the assistant anymore, but sometimes his students do see signs of the impairment caused by the stroke.
"I was telling (a class) put your palms forward — and I was moving my foot," Disrude said.
A 34-year-old manager of a medical office, Beth Disrude is protective of her husband, helping him when he becomes tired and stutters or when he says something indelicate because the stroke affected his ability to censor his thoughts before they become words.
She said he refuses to use the stroke as a crutch, as an excuse.
"He's truly inspirational," she said.
Disrude's cardiologist, Dr. Raymond Chow, called his patient's recovery remarkable. He credited Disrude's hard work and dedication.
"I feel that this could not have a better outcome," Chow said in an email. "This has to be the most rewarding aspect of the practice of medicine."
Chow supports Disrude's marathon attempt and said he's medically cleared to run the marathon, which Advocate Health Care Services is sponsoring.
"I hope his story will inspire others to live a healthy lifestyle," Chow said.
Disrude decided to enter the marathon after competing in Long Grove's annual Turkey Trot 5-kilometer run last November with Beth. The event was held just a few weeks after his heart surgery.
Looking back, Disrude joked his doctors probably wouldn't let him run the 5K if they knew about his plans beforehand.
But after hearing about Disrude's success with the Turkey Trot, Advocate staffers recommended Disrude try the marathon. Disrude couldn't think of a reason not to run.
"It's an honor to do it," Disrude said. "I feel I'll gain everything by being able to accomplish it."
In the months leading up to the race, the Disrudes trained five days a week, typically running along the Des Plaines River Trail through Lake County. Their now-8-month-old son, Logan, accompanied them, nestled beneath a blanket in his stroller.
Kirk pushed the baby along as they ran.
"It helps my balance," he said during one recent run.
The Disrudes' training program started with a few miles and got more strenuous over time. Their longest runs so far have been 20 miles.
Disrude is confident he can run the full 26.2-mile course. Crossing the finish line, he said, will be proof for stroke survivors that "success is around the corner."
For most of the roughly 45,000 marathon entrants, the run will be the most physically demanding task they'll ever undertake, longtime Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski said.
Disrude's desire to run the marathon "exemplifies the human spirit," he said.
"(It's) the ultimate expression of individual commitment, sacrifice and dedication," Pinkowski said.
Most runners will start in a pair of waves at 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. at Grant Park. Racers in wheelchairs or hand cycles will start a few minutes earlier. The finish line is in Grant Park, too.
Some of Disrude's relatives and co-workers will be at key spots along the marathon route to cheer the couple along.
Disrude's mother, Jane Townsend of Rolling Meadows, will be waiting with Logan at the finish line.
Disrude's goal is to complete the race. But he wants to do it with a "decent" time, too.
"I'm going to do all I can to get the best time I can," he said.
That doesn't surprise Beth. Pushing himself is what her husband does, she said.
But Kirk Disrude isn't just running to prove he can do it. He also wants to pay back the people who encouraged him during his recovery and to honor the other stroke survivors he met at the rehabilitation center.
He has a message for them, for all stroke survivors and their families.
"Tomorrow is going to be better," he said.
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