Run, Grover, Run! How a doctor’s promise turned into a 5k road race for IBD

As he huffed and puffed his way across the finish line on a bright June morning, Amit Grover, MB, BCh, BAO, had his patient Mackenzie Sullivan to thank (or blame) for his exhaustion. Grover, who would never call himself a runner, had just spent the past 38 minutes running 3.2 miles alongside Mackenzie—and 400 other runners—as part of a fundraising road race he had inspired her to organize.

Mackenzie address runners at the race she organized

Almost exactly one year prior, a then 18-year-old Mackenzie was a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), preparing for surgery to treat Crohn’s disease when she met Grover, a then first-year fellow who, along with Randi Pleskow, MD, would become part of her care team. As the two talked, Mackenzie explained to Grover her love of running and, in what he describes as a moment of  “sheer naiveté and overconfidence,” Grover promised he’d join the young athlete on one of her many road races the moment she was well enough to run again.

For Mackenzie, whose surgery and recovery meant she had to delay her first year of college, that promise became the cornerstone of an incredible gap-year project.

Mackenzie and Dr. Grover

The road that led Mackenzie to Boston Children’s had been a long and trying one. During her junior year of high school, she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove an undiagnosed ruptured appendix that had been poisoning her body for two months.

Mackenzie and her family had no way of knowing the operation would turn out to be only the first of several—many of which would leave her feeling drained and unlike her usual active self. A few weeks after her appendix was removed, Mackenzie returned for a second operation to remove an abscess. By then, severe abdominal pain and night sweats had become a regular, unwelcome part of her life.

Two and a half years later, when Mackenzie discovered a golf ball-sized protrusion on her abdomen—which doctors later diagnosed as a second abscess—she didn’t want to believe it. “I began to panic,” she remembers. “Could this be happening again?”

Concerned about her health, Mackenzie’s medical team called in a consultation from Boston Children’s gastroenterologists Pleskow and Grover, who diagnosed her with Crohn’s.

“Everyone was really shocked by the initial diagnosis,” Grover explains. “This was a girl who was really athletic—she ran a 5k the day before she found the abscess.”

With the source of her pain and discomfort identified, doctors determined that a resection—surgery to remove the diseased portions of a patient’s intestines—would be Mackenzie’s best bet at feeling well again. Because resections require lengthy recovery periods to give the intestines enough time to properly heal, Mackenzie was forced to postpone her first year of college.

The finish line!

“It was a tough decision for Mackenzie and her family,” Grover explains. “They really agonized over it.”

When she left the hospital more than a month later, Mackenzie began organizing a road race to raise awareness for Crohn’s disease and its treatment. She set to work making fliers, reaching out to family and friends through social media, finding sponsors, picking a route and pulling together the manpower and resources to turn the 5k into a reality—and to hold Grover to his word.

On the day of the race, Mackenzie and Grover were floored by the response. More than 400 runners were shoulder to shoulder across the starting line—a turnout that was miles (and kilometers)—from what they were expecting. When the starter pistol fired, all 400 runners, including members of the Boston Children’s gastroenterology team, began running, jogging or walking the 3.2 mile route in what Mackenzie describes as a touching and overwhelming show of support and solidarity.

Based on her efforts, Mackenzie received the Hero of the Year award from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. “I couldn’t do this at 19,” Grover says, clearly proud of his young patient. “I couldn’t do half of this, let alone run a 5k and bring 400 people together on the Cape for it.”

If the hundreds of photos Mackenzie collected of the event are any indication, the day was filled with a lot of great memories. But what Mackenzie and Grover say they will remember the most is running the last 100 yards and crossing the finish line together. “I was struggling,” Grover readily admits, “and Mackenzie was waiting on the sideline. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the finish line.”