In May 2015, Carolina Ortega had just completed a cool 10 mile run around Miami – typical, for the athletic 35-year-old – when she felt ‘electricity, running up and down’ her toned legs.
When Carolina, wasn’t working as an analyst, she had been competing in marathons for years. There was no reason she should suddenly feel crippled by her typical workout.
A trip to the hospital revealed a tumor, growing inside her spine.
Her neurosurgeon, Dr Allan Levi, was optimistic that she would walk after surgery to remove the cancer, but he didn’t dare promising that she would run again at all – let alone in a marathon.
But today, Carolina surpassed all expectations and crossed the finish line*** at the Boston marathon, one of the most notoriously challenging courses in the US.
Less than three years after a spinal cord tumor nearly cost Carolina Ortega her ability to walk, she is running the Boston Marathon
Carolina a mother and an analyst in Miami, Florida, has a runner’s slight but sturdy build.
In old clips and photos of the races she’s run, you can see that pushing her body gives the young mother true joy.
She medalled in one race, while wearing a superman shirt and cape.
Three years later, she has proven that she deserves every bit of her super hero get up, says her neurosurgeon.
The numbness in Carolina’s usually capable legs turned out to be the result of a rare tumor, growing inside her spinal cord.
There are between 0.8 and 2.5 cases of her form of spinal cancer every year in the US. They are so uncommon that even Dr Levi – who specializes in the removal of such tumors at the University of Miami – is unsure how often the cancer comes back.
When he discovered the tumor and delivered the diagnosis to Carolina, she remembers that she was ‘terrifying, crying and upset.’
‘Whether you’re totally active or not, you mention the word “spine” and you think “oh my God I’m going to lose my ability to walk,”‘ she says.
Carolina, an analyst in Miami, was determined from the moment her doctor diagnosed her that she would prove him wrong and run once more
SUPER HUMAN: Before she was diagnosed with a rare but treatable cancer, Carolina found joy running marathons (right), even wearing a superhero costume for one (left)
Dr Levi warned Carolina that even if the surgery was successful, there was a chance – about 20 percent – that she would not walk, at least not normally, again.
‘To walk again, she had probably an 80 percent chance to walk normally. To run, maybe a one in 100 chance, and to run a marathon, maybe a one in 10,000 chance,’ says Dr Levi.
But Carolina ‘was not going to let that dissuade her, I could tell it in her eye,’ says Dr Levi.
She confirms it: ‘I wanted to prove him wrong.’
Carolina would have to undergo a surgery to remove the tumor, a type of cancer that grew from her own spinal cells.
‘I tell most people that they will almost certainly have some issues after surgery. They might have new numbness, new difficulties localizing their feet in space, new weaknesses,’ says Dr Levi.
But despite those risks, ‘you have to remove the tumor to find out what type it is while not disturbing the wiring in the spinal cord, which can be very challenging,’ he explains.
The spinal cord is a central bundle of nerves that run through the vertebra of the spine, carrying instructions from the brain to the rest of the body through electrical nerve impulses.
Boney vertebrae provide pretty robust protection for this information highway, but the tube inside – and nerves inside it – are actually very fragile.
Carolina gave a brave thumbs up before having surgery to remove her spinal cord tumor in 2015
Dr Levi (left) specializes in spinal cord tumors at the University of Miami. He is optimistic that Carolina’s cancer is gone for good, but it is so rare he cannot be sure
Disturbances to the nerves – such as surgery might cause – could mean that these connections become damaged and signals are not sent or received as clearly, disrupting one’s ability to walk.
The surgery went well, and Carolina underwent radiation therapy to try to eliminate any remaining traces of her cancer.
But, amazingly, she was soon back on her feet, walking, and then running, and even racing.
‘My first race back, it took way longer, but slowly but surely, I started back with long distance, and I’ve been able to chip away at my time until I was roughly where I was [before surgery],’ says Carolina.
Dr Levi ‘saved my life and my ability to walk and run. With that blessing, I’m trying to do as much as I can to take advantage of it and to do it, for others that can’t,’ says Carolina.
ONE IN A MILLION: Dr Levi has run the Boston Marathon (right) and, knowing how challenging it is, he says that Carolina is ‘one in a million’ for doing it after her surgery
Carolina has been training for months in her home city of Miami, Florida, where she runs by the water
So she set her sights even higher.
Carolina wanted to do the Boston Marathon.
Dr Levi, who has run the infamous race himself, thought: ‘the odd of being able to run it were probably about one in a million. It’s definitely one of the tougher marathons.’
After 20 miles – out of 26.2 total – Boston marathon runners must climb a steady half-mile incline, inching toward the finish-line.
He explains: ‘Boston is hilly, cold, sometimes wet – I think it was supposed to be raining today – and you get to mile 16 and you’ve got to go up “Heartbreak” hill, which feels like a cruel joke to a fully able-bodied person.’
While Carolina might be at a physical disadvantage today, Dr Levi thinks she has made her cancer, surgery and recovery into a mental strength.
‘I think that [running a marathon] gives her very good psychological support, and she’s just able to overcome,’ he says.
As Carolina runs on, both her family and her neurosurgeon are cheering her on, from near and far.
‘I just want to hear that she finishes,’ says Dr Levi.
‘The fact that she’s going to run the Boston Marathon, that – to me – is just superhuman,’ he says.