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It was a sunny April day in Boston as Ian Kinsella pushed towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It had been just six months since he’d had heart surgery at St. Michael’s Hospital, and he knew he had to be careful in the final stretch. If something bad were to happen, it would happen in the 42nd kilometre, he told himself.

As he rounded a corner he noticed a nearby runner starting to wobble.

“He looked like he was about to fall. I ran by and then turned around and saw he was about to hit the deck,” Kinsella said. “I ran back, picked him up and put my arm around him. Another runner grabbed his other side. We hoisted him up and dragged him over the finish line.”

The runner was brought to the medical tent where he received care, and Kinsella, without realizing it, had just completed his 17th marathon.

“My finish for Boston was so different from all the other races I’ve run, but in some ways it was even more magical to be able to give back and help someone,” he said. “That runner helped me, because it was the most anxious moment for me, and then suddenly I had finished and got my medal and I was like, ‘Oh sh*t. I just finished Boston.’

“I was running with so much gratitude… it was serendipitous that it happened to me.”

Finishing the race is a major accomplishment for Kinsella, who just a few months earlier wasn’t sure if he would ever run competitively again.

In the spring of 2023 he started to experience some strange heart symptoms. Kinsella, who’s an accomplished competitive runner, initially assumed it was related to anxiety he’d experienced during the pandemic.

He was referred to Dr. Kim Connelly at the Sports Cardiology Clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital, where an early series of tests found nothing abnormal.

A few months later, Kinsella fell ill, and believing he had COVID-19, he tried to sleep it off. A week later he went out for an 11-kilometre run and immediately knew something was wrong.

“My body was having none of it. I had pain in my esophagus and my left arm. My heart was racing,” he said.

Kinsella returned to St. Michael’s for more tests and received some alarming news: Connelly told him had likely suffered a heart attack and probably had heart damage. He was told to immediately stop running and to start medication.

The news immediately sent him into “fight or flight mode,” Kinsella said. “I thought they were going to tell me I had COVID. It was the worst anxiety I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

A promising sign

Further tests and MRI imaging showed that Kinsella had a blocked left anterior descending artery. Connelly told him there were signs that parts of his heart could be revascularized and he would be a good candidate for surgery.

On Oct. 4, Dr. Bobby Yanagawa, St. Michael’s Hospital cardiac surgeon, performed a successful graft bypass on Kinsella. The next day, Yanagawa visited Kinsella in his hospital room and told him that during surgery he saw parts of Kinsella’s heart light up again during revascularization. It was a promising sign.

“Mr. Kinsella is a young and extraordinarily healthy fellow with no comorbidities. His heart was quite weak, but I did not have too many concerns about his ability to make it through surgery,” said Yanagawa. “The major question was whether he should have surgery or be treated with a stent. We knew that he would do well either way in the short term, but wanted to do what was best for him in the long run. We ultimately decided that surgery would be best for him.”

After his surgery, Kinsella focused on recovering and started moving as soon as he was able to – starting with walking up the stairs in the hospital.

Day by day, he set new goals and completed them – small at first and then larger. “I treated it like a running program — first I walked 20 minutes, then I doubled that. By November 2023, I was walking roughly 100 kilometres a week,” Kinsella said.

It wasn’t long before Kinsella replaced walking with jogging and bouts of running — something Connelly credits to his high level of physical fitness.

“Keeping fit and healthy makes patient recovery so much easier. Not only did fitness help Ian get through the operation, he was highly motivated and followed advice well,” said Connelly.

But Kinsella stresses that his recovery has not been straightforward. There have been major highs and lows, including a bout of depression for which he sought therapy.

“I had to be very vulnerable and honest with myself, and once I started working on my mental health my physical recovery progressed quickly,” he said.

After months of training and with the approval of his physicians, Kinsella eventually started racing again, completing the New York City half-marathon in March, a month before Boston.

He finished the Boston Marathon with a time of 3:38:38. He says it’s his slowest time, but his proudest marathon to date.

Meanwhile, his physicians couldn’t be more impressed.

“It is so gratifying as a doctor to see this plan work out and see Ian back to doing what he loves,” said Connelly.

Yanagawa adds: “Any heart surgery is a huge undertaking and post-surgery, many patients are faced with the realization, sometimes for the first time ever, that their lives are finite. The fact that Mr. Kinsella has overcome these obstacles and returned to competitive running is a testament to his physical prowess and his emotional strength.”

Dr. Bobby Yanagawa, Ian Kinsella and Dr. Kim Connelly

By Marlene Leung

Photos by Yuri Markarov