The workdays are long for Dr. Stephen Haskins. As an anesthesiologist and Chief Medical Diversity Officer for the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), he’s normally in the office no later than 7:30 a.m. and he isn’t done until his room is done.

In 2019, with his personal and professional life beginning to get busier, Haskins noticed that he was carrying around some additional weight and wasn’t comfortable with the shape he was in. He had run track and cross country in middle and high school, so he had always enjoyed running in some capacity. He began challenging himself to running miles and found himself addicted to the peace running provided.

“Once you get into running regularly and get into the zone of long distance, it’s very addictive,” Haskins said. “I’ll be out there listening to podcasts or audio books, just zoning out and pushing myself with the runner’s high you get when you’ve gotten to the miles you set out to accomplish that day.”

Two years ago, he was set to run his first marathon in Maryland, but with the threat the COVID-19 was posing, the event was canceled. Haskins still ran his own personal 26.2 in New York City on the date of the marathon. He would then find himself contracting the virus and battling symptoms that he believed could put an end to him ever being able to enjoy a nice brisk run again.

On March 19, Dr. Stephen Haskins crossed the finish line of the inaugural United Tri-Hero Cup Challenge in 2:00:09. The half marathon honored New York City’s bravest first responders who were on the frontlines during the pandemic and included HSS physicians, NYPD and NYFD. Haskins detailed his experience with COVID, the emotional and physical toll that came with working on the frontlines during the pandemic and why his first official marathon was one he’ll always remember.

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The Path Of Dr. Stephen Haskins’ Personal 26.2

With doing all the training and having run marathon miles by myself, I said I was going to run one myself. I did it that weekend that the marathon in Maryland was supposed to happen. I figured I put all this work in, I might as well check that box. I live in New York and it’s actually a very runner’s friendly city if you know where to run. I used to live in the Lower East Side, and I actually started there and I ran north up to 39th Street. There’s this little area that is east of FDR Drive and gets you about as far as you can on the East Side before it all becomes highway. Then I looped around past Battery Park, and I ran up to the Washington Heights area on the West Side. Basically, I ran all the way around Manhattan up to the top and I came back down to Houston Street. If you do that, it actually gets you to a little over 26.

A Citywide Shutdown

Fortunately, we never got into trouble from a PPE shortage perspective and we were always adequately equipped when working with COVID patients. The day before I got sick with COVID, it was right in the middle of New York being in an extreme shutdown. I went for a 14-mile jog up 5th Avenue to Central Park. I looped around Central Park and came down 7th Avenue through Times Square. I swear I saw more people in Central Park then I saw on all of 5th Avenue and 7th Avenue. Everything was shuttered. It looked like a scene from one of these post-apocalyptic movies. I wasn’t feeling great during that run. I had a tickle in my throat, and it was cold and rainy. I got home and had a little bit of a cough. I was next to my wife on the couch, and she made a COVID joke, and I was like, “I just went for a 14-mile run, what are you talking about?”

The next day, I wasn’t feeling good, and I got a fever when I was in the operating room. I immediately went home and quarantined for the next two weeks. Fortunately, my wife and two-year-old son didn’t get sick, but I got hit pretty hard. I spent the next two weeks with severe body aches, got pneumonia and had several days of the worst headache in my life. The whole time, I’m thinking I’m supposed to be taking care of COVID patients. This is the one true emergency meant for anesthesiologists. It’s airway, everyone is getting intubated and critical care is an essential part of our training. Ventilators are something we deal with on a daily basis in the operating room and when we’re taking care of patients in the ICU. I was on the verge of misery with this horrible virus. I kept telling myself I need to get back out there but I couldn’t because I had a fever for well over a week. I didn’t go back into work until I went three days without a fever.

What put things in perspective for me was there were people my age who were on ventilators and in really bad shape. It made me just take pause and think I could have been one of those people. I took for granted that while I had a miserable bout, I didn’t have to go to the hospital, and I never had any major needs for oxygen. Then it made me think that if I hadn’t been in shape going into getting the virus, who knows what might have happened. My life could have taken a different turn if I hadn’t been in marathon-running shape before getting COVID. In many ways, I think running might have saved my life.

Chief Medical Diversity Officer for the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) Dr. Stephen Haskins finishing a marathon after running the NYC Marathon
Courtesy of Stephen Haskins

A Familiar Escape For Dr. Stephen Haskins

I feel like one of the ways I tried to compensate for all of that was through running because it was one thing I could control. It was a slow process where I would gradually increase the milage of my runs to try and get back up to speed. It took me up to eight weeks to get to a point where I could run another 13 miles in one go. Before COVID, I could get up and run 13 miles on any day pretty much without too much difficulty. It was a slow and gradual build. One thing I think that also helped is I have a friend who is a physical therapist, he wrote a book called Be More Today. We reconnected the previous year because I was doing a lot of running and he had run a lot of marathons. He suggested we sign up for this summer challenge called the Grit 150 in the month of July where we committed to running 150 miles in the extreme heat of the summer. I had never run that much before, but it was something to focus on and a good distraction. By the end of the month, I had run 160 miles and I felt like I was getting back to the condition that I was before I got COVID in March.

Dr. Stephen Haskins Battle With Covid and Himself

I took a big hit after being laid up a couple of weeks with COVID. What’s interesting is I do a lot of ultrasound imaging for work, and I have a handheld probe. I was able to scan my lungs and I could clearly tell I had pneumonia on both sides and had fluid around my lungs. It was not surprising that I would be a little bit short of breath but one of the things I made sure I did before I got back to work was, I wanted to see if I could go out and get some miles in. I went from being able to complete a marathon to barely being able to finish a 5K. I would have to stop and walk to catch my breath a few times. It was a very dramatic decline with my lungs, my ability to breathe and my overall conditioning.

We were just starting to learn about long COVID because it hadn’t been around long enough for people to think the symptoms could be chronic. I knew people were still having heart palpitations and shortness of breath. I didn’t know if my lungs would go back to their baseline, and I felt like I hit a major wall. You deal with certain injuries, and you rehab to get back out there. With getting COVID, there was certainly an unknown element to whether that was going to be a temporary setback or a permanent one. Fortunately, I got back almost to where I was before in terms of my endurance, speed, and conditioning. It was a battle to get there, though.

The thing that stuck around the longest for me — at least six months or longer — is I had pretty significant brain fog. At the time, it was tough for me to differentiate between the stress of what was happening in the world, the heaviness of being in healthcare during that time, and maybe I was just stressed out because of that, and I couldn’t really focus on things as clearly as I used to before. Simple tasks were difficult. I found myself having to take a lot of notes and doing a lot of things to compensate for not being as sharp as I was before I got sick.

Crossing the Finish Line

It was a beautiful day for a run. I’ve been nursing an injured foot for the last year, so this was my first race since I ran the half virtually last year. I’ve been taking it easy because I didn’t want to re-injure myself, so I got to push it a little bit hard during the actual race and did well compared to how I had been doing during my training runs. It meant a lot because I had never run an in-person marathon race before. I happened to pick up distance running at the perfect time to never be able to run an in-person marathon. Having spent the last few years in a solitude of running, it was interesting to do it in person for the first time and see the crowd, feel the energy, and get to run places that you just can’t run unless the city shuts down the Manhattan Bridge or Times Square. From start until finish, I was taking videos, pictures and trying to experience it all. It was like the culmination of all those years of training where I get to do this in person. It was amazing to have friends and family that were there cheering me on throughout and to get that medal and that runner’s high in addition to the moment. It was an amazing experience.

Follow Dr. Stephen Haskins on Twitter @shaskinsmd.

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