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Blue Cross Broad Street Run: Stroke survivor believes in a way back

This time two years ago, Dr. Tom Leonard should have been prepping for his 10th Broad Street Run. That was his plan, anyway.

This time two years ago, Dr. Tom Leonard should have been prepping for his 10th Broad Street Run. That was his plan, anyway. The year before, he had completed the race in just 78 minutes, his best time to date. His love of running was well known throughout his neighborhood of Collingswood—he had become somewhat of a local legend, dubbed the "Running Ninja" by those who saw him on his daily 10-mile runs. For his 10th date with Broad Street, he would be bumped up to a new age bracket and was ready to take on the competition. This was the year for his personal best.

And in some ways, 2012 was the year of his personal best—but not at Broad Street. Just a few months before the race, the unthinkable happened: the otherwise healthy Dr. Leonard had a stroke. His life changed in a flash.

A stroke occurs when blood flow and oxygen to the brain is cut off. It's the 4th leading cause of death in the US—and for survivors, it's the number one cause of disability. It can cause significant arm and leg weakness, as well as speech and cognitive deficits.

For Tom, the physical impact was most striking. Everyday activities that were once effortless were now wrought with challenges. While in physical and occupational therapy at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, both as an inpatient and outpatient, he had to relearn how to walk and do things for himself. Although he made a great deal of progress, the residual weakness in his left arm and leg forced him to leave his optometry practice, as well as his favorite recreational activities, fishing and, yes, running.

But as they say in life, you cannot wait for the perfect moment; you have to grab the moment while it's there and make it perfect. And that's exactly what Tom is doing.

He isn't waiting until he is back in running condition to take on Broad Street. Tom now walks a slow, methodical pace with a cane and a plastic foot brace so he can take steps without tripping on his left foot. It isn't easy. But this level of effort does not stop him from walking four miles every day—nor will it stop him from walking the 10-mile Broad Street Run. He'll be joined by his family, friends and neighbors who make up Team Tom. His goal? To finish in under four hours. It may not be as fast as his 78-minute run… but it will be just as impressive.

Tom truly exemplifies Magee's motto of "believe in a way back." Working with him in physical therapy, I was humbled by his tenacity and ability to keep his eye on the prize of returning to life as it was before his stroke.

He encourages all stroke survivors to embrace their improvements, no matter how small they may seem to be. "Take small steps," he said. "It will be a long road with incremental gains—but you can get it back. Stick with it, and you can do it."

Surviving his stroke has given Tom an awakening appreciation of the things in life he still has. What he has learned since his stroke is relevant to all of us, regardless of our experience with illness or injury.

"All athletes hit obstacles, whether they are emotional, physical or mental," he said."You have to have the resilience to work through them… but it's worth it in the end."

We agree. Be sure to cheer on Team Tom when you see them on Broad Street May 4th!

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.