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Beyond medical help, physician-runner says spiritual help needed, too
BOSTON — Though events at the 2013 Boston Marathon included mayhem and the need for swift action, the father of a heroic runner slowed down to reflect in prayer at a Catholic shrine the next day.
After experiencing firsthand the events as two bombs exploded April 15 at the finish line, Dr. Joseph Stavas, 58, stopped at the St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston's Back Bay the following day to pray and reflect on the crisis.
The physician had planned on taking a flight home to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he works at University of North Carolina's Center for Heart and Vascular Care, but stayed in town to support his daughter, also a physician, in media appearances later in the day.
"I said we just need to stop and pray about this and get some inspiration from the Lord to help us work through this, because I think this is where many people come back to search for answers, which there may not be any, for peace, which we pray for, and a better understanding of how this all fits together," he told The Pilot, Boston's archdiocesan newspaper.
Even with the training of a doctor, the strength of a seasoned runner, and the power of his faith, nothing prepared him for the events he experienced April 15.
He ran with his daughter, Dr. Natalie Stavas, 32, as he has three previous marathons. As soon as she sensed a crisis, she ran toward the sounds of the blast to help victims.
"She just had this intuition that something wasn't right. All we had heard was that there was an explosion at the finish line, and she — being a few years younger than me and much faster — jumped over this fence," he said.
Stavas and his wife, Maureen, commented on the heroism their daughter showed in the heat of the moment.
Joseph Stavas said Natalie told him that she knew the streets in the area well enough that she could find a way through the crowd, so she could run ahead and try to help.
"Something triggered her intuition and she said, 'Dad, I know I can get to the finish line,'" he said.
Maureen Stavas said Natalie had a foot injury but ran the race anyway, and then rose to the occasion when tragedy struck.
"They didn't think she was going to be able to run, because she tore the tendon from her foot," she said.
On the day of the run, Joseph Stavas said he awoke and, as he always does, "began the day with the Magnificat (Catholic prayer magazine) ... and got some inspiration from that."
After his daughter raced off to help, he realized runners — jolted to a stop after almost completing the 26.2-mile run — faced a dangerous situation without time to cool down muscles or maintain body temperature after the extreme exertion. He said the "traffic jam of people" was a mile long.
He and several bystanders started helping the runners as their temperatures began to drop. Many "who were now stalled out were going through hypothermia, because after 26-plus miles your body goes through this severe physiologic stress," he explained.
Knowing the human logjam would prevent ambulances from getting through, Stavas and others knocked on the doors of nearby houses to get shivering runners inside for warmth.
The spectators who pitched in were "very generous" with their help," he said. "All the Boston locals — I am sure that's who they were — were very, very helpful and very gracious."
He later reconnected with daughter Natalie, whose efforts to help the wounded were widely reported.
Joseph Stavas said that prayer and reflection through his Catholic faith bolstered his training as a runner.
"Prayer is actually a part of my training," he said.
"These runs are long as you are training for the marathon, which could be months, the runs may be 20 to 22 or so miles in distance, and there is a lot of time for reflection. I frequently say the rosary when I am praying, because your body is going through this change," Stavas said. "You are going through this struggle. It is a physical struggle, but like anything else in life, struggles can be mental along with physical. They can be spiritual."
He compared the struggles now facing Boston after the bombings to the struggles of a runner pushing through one of the famous landmarks on the route of the city's marathon.
"I think God has these tribulations and these 'Heartbreak Hills' that I think we have to go to and struggle over until we can get to whatever finish line we are looking for," Stavas said.
Pineo is a reporter at The Pilot, newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.