Chevy Chase resident Rodney Vieira recently started and ended a virtual marathon route at the Garden Path behind Bethesda’s Suburban Hospital.
It was fitting — his journey to the marathon began there 11 years before. After suffering a heart attack in 2009, Vieira enrolled in the hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, what he called a “rebirth.”
“[The program] sort of set me on the path towards what I now think of as my new life,” Vieira said. “People who didn’t know me before my heart attack — I feel like that’s a different me.”
Now, more than a decade later, he finished his 12th marathon on Sept. 14, running the Boston Marathon virtually with the goal of raising $10,000 to give back to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.
Vieira began the marathon at 7 a.m. in a bid to beat the heat. But a few hours into the race, the humidity levels had risen, and the sun was beating down.
The last 13 miles were harder than any of the eight marathons he’d previously ran, Vieira said. But Stacey Goldsamt, the director of development for the Suburban Hospital Foundation, ran the last half of the race alongside him and pushed him to complete the race.
Goldsamt arranged for Vieira’s wife, Trish, and staff members from the rehab program to greet him at the finish line. His two daughters, Eleanor, 13, and Charlotte, 11, ran the last 0.2 miles of the marathon with their dad.
At the makeshift finish line — a breakaway banner Goldsamt bought for the occasion — the hospital’s cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Thomas Matthew, presented Vieira with a medal.
“It was great to have our team there and not have to worry about anything that was going on in our area or in the world,” Goldsamt said. “Here, we created a positive experience for a grateful patient that we saved.”
In November 2009, when Vieira was 41, he suffered a heart attack while raking leaves in his backyard. After experiencing chest pain and tingling in his arms and hands, Vieira was rushed to Suburban Hospital.
At the time, he said, he was about 50 pounds overweight and only exercised sporadically. Doctors discovered blockages in three of his arteries.
Vieira was in the hospital for three or four days to undergo angioplasty and to recover.
While he laid in the hospital bed, Vieira said, he thought of his two daughters, who were 3 years old and 9 months old at the time.
“It was devastating to me that from not taking care of myself, I had almost cost them their dad at a time in their lives when they probably would not have ever even remembered me,” Vieira said. “At that point, I knew I needed to make some changes in my life, so I could be around for my family. It wasn’t a game anymore.”
The experience prompted a complete lifestyle overhaul. Vieira enrolled in the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program for 12 weeks. He learned healthy eating habits, exercised while hooked up to an EKG, and practiced yoga and meditation.
But he wanted to do something to demonstrate the full extent of his transformation.
“The first thing that popped into my mind was running a marathon for some crazy reason,” Vieira said. “I’d never even run a 5K.”
Two years later, he ran his first marathon. It would take seven more years before Vieira, who grew up in Massachusetts, qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Vieira had planned to raise funds for Suburban by running the marathon in Boston in April.
The hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program is largely supported by contributions, amassing more than $30,000 in donations each year, according to Seth Steele, the assistant director of development for the Suburban Hospital Foundation. Recently, the funding has allowed for new exercise equipment, a yoga program and dieticians.
So far, Vieira has raised about $6,000 for the program.
“Especially as this year came on with COVID, I knew that the rehab program had reduced capacity and the hospital was under tremendous stress from COVID,” Vieira said.
The thought of giving back to the program, and of greeting the doctors, staff, and family members gathered at the finish line, kept him from giving up during the race, he added.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you train. It really comes down to more of a mental stamina to be able to withstand the pain that your body is under,” Vieira said. “I had the finish line to look forward to and that really kept me going.”