Pittsburgh marathoner finds 'magic' freedom from multiple sclerosis through running
The magic didn't come quickly to John Platt.
First multiple sclerosis hit him hard. For seven years, he struggled and relied on a cane.
But now what Platt, 43, refers to as "the magic" occurs each time he laces up his running shoes.
He's come a long way from the overweight 29-year-old corporate sales representative who was "living the high life," traveling, working 60-70 hour weeks when he noticed a strange twitch in one eye. That twitch eventually led to a MS diagnosis.
Sunday, the Moon Township father of two who spent summers on his grandfather's farm in Mt. Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, will run his first Pittsburgh Marathon.
The lean, 6-foot tall runner with a shock of dark hair and well-toned body should easily blend into the race day crowd. He's run marathons in New York and Chicago and set a personal record when he completed his third Boston Marathon last month.
That's where the magic happens.
"The only time I feel like I'm free from MS is when I'm running," Platt said.
At the onset, his MS was aggressive. For the first seven years after his diagnosis, Platt walked with a cane, took his medicine and listened to his doctors.
"I was the good patient," he said.
Things changed in 2013. Almost a year to the day after the death of his beloved grandfather, James Hilty, a friend died unexpectedly. She was in her early 50s.
"One day we're playing Words with Friends, the next day, she's not there. It hit me really hard," Platt said. "I had many discussions with my wife. I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to be the good MS patient.'"
No longer was he willing to accept without question what MS threw at him.
He went to the basement, dusted off a treadmill his brother had given him, "held on for dear life," and began to walk.
"I walked a mile. It took a half an hour. The magic didn't happen then. It happened the next day when I got back on the treadmill and took one step past a mile. MS is chronic and progressive, so I became chronically progressive. Every day I took one more step," Platt said. "I didn't set out to do anything. I just wanted to show my daughters that we can be better than whatever adversity life throws at us."
Even so, MS is a constant companion.
"Every morning when I wake up, MS is in the mirror. …It takes me about 20 minutes to get my legs to wake-up," he said.
Seeking solutions, strength
Platt scrutinizes MS research as a peer reviewer for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program , a special Department of Defense program that goes where other agencies won't venture, underwriting high-impact, high-risk, high-gain research.
While a cure may be years away, Platt said the outlook for ever-better treatments is bright.
"I can confidently say we will be able to stop the progression of the disease in my lifetime. Once we can do that, there are solutions to the problems," he said.
"There are solutions," he said. "That's a huge part of the message I want to portray. That's why I'm part of GatherMS , (an online community that helps MS patients and their support partners explore community resources.) You go onto their website and put in Pittsburgh and pull up solutions that might be out there. There are solutions out there, and that is a big thing for people to understand that there are solutions out there and you are not alone."
Solutions might be as simple as grocers who will deliver when a patient is too sick to drive, or a friend or spouse who will pick the kids up after school, Platt said.
Finding a good fit with a doctor, the right disease modifying therapy and plugging into the resources like GatherMS were key to Platt's progress.
But he never knows what MS will throw at him.
Spasticity, numbness, lack of balance, vertigo, fine motor tremors, falls and random foot drop are among the symptoms that can kick in at any time. Things get dicey when the weather warms up.
"Eighty degrees, direct sunlight, no wind and in half an hour I'll lose vision entirely," he said, recounting how he stumbled into the medical tent at mile 14 of his first Boston Marathon, hot and blind.
Twice a week, Platt trains with Jeremy McCullough, a strength and fitness trainer at the Allegheny Health Network Sports Complex at Cool Springs in Bethel Park. McCullough accompanied Platt to the Boston Marathon last year. He ran backward filming Platt the entire way.
"He can't feel, so we work to strengthen his muscles," McCullough said as Platt did leg extensions, sliding along, in one direction then the next on a smooth plastic surface.
Later Platt pulled a 135-pound sled across the floor and pushed it back before heading to Jacob's Ladder. Platt climbed the endlessly revolving ladder set on a 45 degree angle, hand over hand, foot over foot in perfect rhythm.
"I fall, but I get back up and that's when the magic happens," Platt said.
He's chronically persistent, a quality he picked up as a child during visits to his grandfather's Kecksburg farm.
"I learned a lot from my grandfather. He'd call me Jake. He'd say, 'Jake if something's worth doing, it's worth doing right.'" Platt said.
His attitude may be contagious.
Dr. Troy Desai, the Allegheny Health Network neurologist who heads Platt's MS treatment team, agreed to go running with Platt a while back. Now Desai and his team will run with Platt on Sunday as a Marathon relay team.
Desai never was a runner. Platt inspired him.
"Four or five years ago, he was walking with a cane and he'd have to look down at the ground to see where his feet were and take very small steps. The medicine he's on has done a good job of keeping his symptoms at bay. But it's his training, his dedication, his discipline and his drive that have allowed him thrive and run 26 miles every week," Desai said.
Platt was inspired by the mobility impaired runners who competed with him in Boston, including amputees, blind runners and runners who suffered severed spinal cords.
"On Patriots Day every year humanity is alive and well. I am truly moved by the caring and the outpouring and support I see," Platt said. "We've all been through the dark. The magic is when you show up and say, 'tomorrow I'm going to be better than today.'"
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.