APEX — It started with an eye twitch. Tom O’Donnell mentioned it to his family physician during a routine examination — this involuntary muscle spasm he had just begun experiencing.
The doctor made a note of it, but that was all. When O’Donnell had another examination a year later, he reported that the twitch had increased in frequency.
“He suggested it was time to go ahead and have an MRI,” O’Donnell recalls.
It was the spring of 2009, and this is where Tom O’Donnell’s story begins.
“I never thought I had a story,” says O’Donnell, a 1982 Salisbury High graduate. “I never thought I had something to share.”
O’Donnell, 48, keeps a shaven head these days. It reveals a C-shaped scar — a “C” that could symbolize his college alma mater, the University of North Carolina, or a “C” that could stand for cancer.
The MRI three years ago led to surgery at the Preston Robert Tisch Tumor Center of Duke University for a mass on the front, right side of his brain.
One of the top neurosurgeons in the world, Dr. Allan Friedman, operated on O’Donnell and removed 60 percent of a cancerous, low-grade tumor.
“My tumor is an oligodendroglioma,” O’Donnell says, and he can’t help but note that the word “god” is contained in the name.
When he woke up from the surgery and could wiggle all his fingers and toes, he resolved to celebrate in an unusual way.
He was going to run. To his doctors’ amazement, that’s what he did — running during lunch breaks in Pittsboro, where he manages a Kerr Drug store, and otherwise running routes and road races throughout the Triangle.
Come Monday, O’Donnell will be competing in his first Boston Marathon.
For him, the 26.2-mile Boston race won’t be about his time. Rather, it’s that he has the time.
And something else has happened.
O’Donnell’s race team, which he calls “101% Possible,” has raised $38,000 for brain tumor research at the Duke University center where he had his operation three years ago.
“That is bigger than anything I could do in Boston,” he says. “It’s huge. Whatever time I run is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to me.”
O’Donnell says it simply shows what hope can do.
“I truly am inspired every day by my big brother,” says Kathy Mishue, who still lives in Salisbury with her husband and son. “He makes everything seem 101 percent possible.”
O’Donnell’s parents, who are retired and living at Bermuda Run in Davie County, moved their family to Salisbury from New York in 1979.
In high school, O’Donnell ran cross country, and he continued in that sport at Western Carolina University. O’Donnell quit his cross-country career when he transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill.
And for the next 20 years or so, his running regimen proved sporadic at best. From the race T-shirts he kept all these years, he realized that his last organized race was a 10K in Research Triangle Park in 1984.
When O’Donnell and his wife, Mary, went in for his consult with Friedman, the renowned surgeon gave him three options: undergo surgery, have a biopsy or do nothing. Friedman advised against doing nothing.
“It wasn’t a very tough decision for me,” O’Donnell says. He called the next day and told the center to schedule his surgery, which took place July 8, 2009.
O’Donnell said he refused to Google “brain tumors” or look up information on Friedman. “He told us the risks involved,” O’Donnell recalls. “They would be able to tell me a lot more after surgery.”
One of the risks was having a stroke and losing use of the left side of his body. This was during a time, as a 46-year-old, when he was probably running three times a week, about 3 miles a stretch.
“I wanted to use my body right up to the end,” O’Donnell says. “… I felt confident going into surgery. I really thought I could affect the outcome. I just felt like I was going to do my part.”
Mishue and another sister went back to see their brother in post-op. They were scared, serious and quiet. Both were on the verge of tears as they entered his room.
“There lies my brother with what I can only describe as a goofy grin on his face,” Mishue says. “He proceeded to tell us all the words the doctors had told him before surgery to check his memory after the surgery.”
He also had to spell them forward and backward.
“I am pretty sure he was singing at one point,” Mishue says. “He was the highlight of the post-op and made many, many friends. Now I know drugs had a lot to do with his actions, but not all of it was drugs.
“I knew then he would be fine.”
O’Donnell did not face any additional treatment for his low-grade tumor, but he started having MRIs every two months to make sure changes weren’t taking place. He also went through regular cognitive tests, answering questions such as how many nickels were in $1.35 and how were certain words spelled backward.
Two weeks after surgery, he asked whether he could begin running. His physician’s assistant told him to go no more than a mile and never run alone.
“I have yet, really, to run just a mile, and some of my best runs are by myself,” O’Donnell says.
He missed eight weeks of work, a period during which he could not drive and was taking anti-seizure medications. O’Donnell started training for his first marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon, when he experienced his one and only seizure — a day when he was taking his truck in for inspection.
It led him to the emergency room, a CAT scan and MRI. His oncologist at Duke, Dr. Katy Peters, said the results of the MRI concerned her, and she recommended a biopsy.
That meant drilling a hole in the side of his head.
The day after the biopsy, which proved negative, O’Donnell ran 5 miles. Three weeks later, he ran the marathon he had been training for in a time of 4 hours, 12 minutes.
His daughter, Kerry, drove him to that marathon at 5 in the morning because he wasn’t able to drive for six months after the seizure.
Among the people meeting him at the finish line were Peters and his physician’s assistant. O’Donnell still chokes up remembering they were there.
O’Donnell has been speaking to groups such as the brain tumor center board and Relay for Life ever since. His race team also has raised money for the Angels Among Us 5K and Family Fun Walk that supports brain tumor research at Duke.
That’s where the Boston Marathon donations will be going.
O’Donnell runs because he can, and he hopes it inspires others in his situation not to give up hope.
Today, the 6-foot, 2-inch O’Donnell weighs about 150 pounds and still maintains the 29-inch waist he had in high school.
O’Donnell qualified for the Boston Marathon on his own by running his fourth marathon last fall in 3 hours, 20 minutes — close to a full hour off his first marathon time. (He emphasizes he’s not a “charity runner.”)
Nonetheless, he set a goal of raising $1,000 a mile for the Boston Marathon, realizing he probably was being too ambitious. The $38,000 total for Angels Among Us has blown him away.
At Duke, the doctors will be following his marathon progress in the race through a tracking link.
His wife and daughter will be at the finish line in Boston. So will his oldest sister, Nancy McKay, and a couple of nephews.
A fellow cancer patient who O’Donnell got to know at his Pittsboro drugstore lost his fight with cancer last year. The man’s wife and daughter also are going to be in Boston to support O’Donnell.
Not bad for a guy who thought he never had a story.
His eye twitch is gone, by the way.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com
Tom O’Donnell’s Boston Marathon
To make a donation to Tom O’Donnell’s race team, go to www.angelsamongus. org and visit his “101% Possible” team page.
All contributions benefit the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, where O’Donnell is a patient. Funds are used for brain tumor research.
O’Donnell is a 1982 graduate of Salisbury High who now lives in Apex. He will be running in the Boston Marathon on Monday.
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