Will: Overcoming all obstacles after ECMO


You might say Will Doggett excels at overcoming obstacles. For the past four years, the 14-year-old has actively sought them out in the form of Spartan races. Running through mud, hoisting wet sandbags, traversing monkey bars and dodging other hurdles are all par for the course in this adrenaline-charged sport. But Will has been tackling obstacles his whole life.

A severe case of RSV

When he was just a month old, Will was med-flighted from his home in Nantucket to Boston Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe case of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Will and his grandpa in the hospital

“For some reason, the RSV really destroyed his lungs,” says his mom, Ariel. “The doctors told me if he hadn’t been med-flighted, he probably wouldn’t have made it through the night.”

Will was so sick that he was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for 12 days and spent nearly three months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Boston. The experience left him with chronic lung problems, visual impairment and a host of other medical conditions including muscle weakness on his right side, the result of a stroke while on ECMO.

When he was 3, Will and his family moved from Nantucket to the Boston area so he could receive the complex care he needed at Boston Children’s. At one point, he was seeing 18 different specialists at the hospital, but over the years, has been able to scale back to about six.

A natural athlete

Despite these physical setbacks, Will has always been athletic. He tried football and snowboarding before signing up for his first Spartan race, at age 10.

“I had been doing the races for a number of years, and Will decided he wanted to try,” says Ariel. Three days before his first race, Will broke his arm. Undaunted, he decided to compete anyway, arm in a cast.

Will holds his trifecta medal

“One of the teams I race with includes a woman with bone disease,  and the team is used to getting her through the course safely,” says Ariel. “We did the same for Will, and he loved it. As soon as he finished, he looked at me and said he wanted to try the trifecta, three different types of races, the next year.”

Not only did Will complete the trifecta that next year, but has continued to compete in the races every year since. Last year, he ran a 5K course without Ariel for the first time. “His vision was my biggest worry, because he basically can’t see anything to his right,” says Ariel. “So, as I watched him take off into the woods, I was really nervous, but also really proud.”

A strong support team

Throughout the years, Will’s doctors have been a constant source of support. “His pulmonologist, Dr. Alicia Casey has been incredible,” says Ariel. “This year, he joined the cross-country team at his high school, and when his asthma starting acting up she was always available by email and phone to help me adjust his medications and get him through his races.”

He’s also received lots of support from his physiatrist, Dr. Donna Nimec, who helped him safely transition out of his leg brace, which he wore for many years to help strengthen the muscles in his right leg and foot.

Will and Ariel after a race at Fenway Park
in 2015

This year, he aims to complete another Spartan trifecta, and hopes his story serves as an inspiration to others who have obstacles to overcome. “I want to help people who think they can’t do something,” says Will. “Maybe if they watch me they’ll realize they can.”

Learn more about the Division of Pulmonary and Respiratory Diseases.