Patient Finishes Walking a Marathon on Final Day of Chemo

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Courtesy of Cook Children’s Medical Center

Every day, Joey Belles got his laps in around the nurses’ station.

The 13-year-old from Aledo, Texas, was diagnosed with pineoblastomia, a rare brain tumor that required surgery and intensive chemotherapy, in June 2019, and he had been in the hospital for much of the time since then. His doctors and physical therapists at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, acknowledged how easy it was to just turn off the light each day and rest, but they encouraged him to at least stand up every day, and even move a bit if he could.

One program at the hospital that caught Joey’s attention was Miles in Motion. The hospital used it as a way to get patients active through walking and even cycling. For patients like Joey who walked, there were rewards: A mile, or 24 laps around the nurses’s station, earned you a bracelet, and ten miles got you a gift card.

“We realized, as the physical therapy team, that patients weren’t active on their own a lot. They were staying in their rooms,” Lydia Robey, D.P.T., who helped start the Miles in Motion program, told Runner’s World. “We needed a culture change where people saw exercise as medicine, so we incentivized things like walking. We gave patients tracking sheets and said 24 laps around the station is a mile, see what you can do.”

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Courtesy of Denise Belles

At first, Joey started with a couple laps at a time, slowly walking while connected to his medical pole that wheeled alongside him.

“Depending on where he was in a treatment cycle, it would take him a minute and a half to two minutes to to do a lap,” Denise Belles, Joey’s mom, told Runner’s World. “If he was feeling good, he would tend to pick it up at the end. It made him stronger and feel better when he did compared to when he didn’t.”

And each time he went walking with his specialists or his mom, he wanted to go even farther.

“I felt amazing when I walked,” Joey told Runner’s World. “All I can say is it was great. It made me feel good. I felt like I was back to normal, like I wasn’t going through chemo.”

Those few laps at a time turned into five, then 10, 20, and eventually as many as 32 at a time. The sheet that Joey used to keep track of his laps just kept growing, and before he or the nurses realized it, he was on the verge of hitting a marathon distance in total.

“A couple of us nurses were just chatting and Joey passed by and mentioned he was on mile 25,” Haleigh Schreck, D.P.T. his physical therapist, told Runner’s World. “He was about to do a marathon. We decided we had to do something big to celebrate all of his hard work and for staying so positive.”

The hospital had never fathomed a patient covering the distance of a marathon in their halls; Joey hadn’t even thought about how far he’d gone until his nurses told him.

Joey was approaching the 26.2-mile mark right around the end of his fourth and final chemo session. They decided that he’d do the final laps on his last day of chemo and celebrate.

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Courtesy of Denise Belles

On February 20, Joey rounded the nurses’ station for the final time of his marathon, jogging the final steps of his 629 laps. He was greeted by dozens of hospital staff cheering him on and giving him the full marathon experience the nurses surprised him with finish line amenities like a space blanket, a bowl of postrace snacks, bananas, 26.2 stickers, and a medal with his name on it that they specially ordered for the day. His mom placed the medal around his neck.

“So many people were cheering for me,” Joey said. “It was the most amazing day. I’ll never forget it.”

With his last chemo session behind him, Joey is back at home recovering. He has to be isolated for 100 days, but he has been walking everyday. When he gets healthy enough, he wants to start running.

“We’re planning to do a marathon, maybe like a year from now, a real one,” Joey said. “We’re thinking maybe Cowtown, or something big like New York City or Boston. My mom said she’d do it with him. She did one 10 years ago, so we’re gonna try it together.”

The Belles family is also fundraising to help pay off some of the medical costs. If you’d like to donate, you can do so here.



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