Crossing the Finish Line

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Robert at the marathonA little over five years ago, then 37 year old Robert Fitts suffered a massive stroke. His world change irrevocably and in ways which no one could predict and yet there have been constants: faith, family and friends. For five years, Robert has worked diligently through physical and occupational therapies, with doctors, family and friends, to continue to recognize his challenges, meet them, and try to overcome them. His paralysis on the left side of his body, from head to toe makes it challenging to walk and he insists on doing so even as he uses a four pronged cane to go one step at a time. The impact of the stroke on areas of his brain make focusing and impulse control daily challenges which he and those around him work to improve. He has been blessed with the support of those around him in everything that he does and his own faith is unwavering.

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And then in January of this year, he was blessed with the support of a new friend who made a decision that would have ramifications through the months since then. Kelly Boyle, a friend of his sister Alicia’s, from graduate school, had met Robert a couple of years ago . She was deeply impressed and humbled by the faith and tenacity which Robert demonstrates in his everyday life and by the challenges inherent in daily activities for stroke heroes. In January, Kelly made a decision to support Robert, his family and many others who have been impacted by stroke, participating through the American Stroke Association on the Boston Train to End Stroke team and completing a half marathon in Kona, Hawaii in June. Kelly was not a runner, had never done anything like this before and made a bet on Robert and all those other stroke heroes. In turn, Robert made a bet on Kelly and her determination to finish a half marathon for the first time, deciding that while he could not complete the entire half marathon at this time, he coukld prepare himself to walk across the finish line.

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Together, they each trained for their respective goals, and worked with their families to send out fundraising letters in the hopes of raising $4,900. Together, and with the overwhelming support of friends and family from across the United States and around the world, they raised about $13,000. The notes of support and checks came in from those impacted by stroke and those who haven’t been, from those in Kelly’s home towns of Pittsfield and Boston, Massachusetts and in Robert’s home town of Spring Hill, Tennessee. Friendships were renewed from Robert’s upbringing overseas in Libya, England and Scotland; his best friend from England over thirty years ago was made aware of his efforts and picked up the phone to call; friends of his sister, Alicia’s, fifth grade class in England connected to make contributions. Many from their high school days in Scotland generously got on line or put a stamp on an envelope to make a difference. And even in these hard times, the support came in, $5 and $10 checks, sometimes with a note to Kelly explaining how the contributor knew Robert and his family and offering words of support for her.. It was and is humbling to realize the time and resources that people gave so freely when many have so little to give. It did and does make a difference, just the effort, let alone the monetary gifts.

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And then came the day, June 28, in Kona, Hawaii, when Kelly finished her half marathon for Robert and herself, and when Robert chose to walk some two hundred feet to cross the finish line for Kelly and himself. For so much as the dynamic duo had done to raise funds for the American Stroke Association, for all that the rest of Kelly’s team from Boston, Massachusetts, had done to raise over $100,000 to prevent stroke, crossing that finish line together was all that and more. To impromptu cheers from the spectators, “We are, we are so proud of you” over and over and loudly, to the race announcer’s saying over those cheers, “You, Robert Fitts, you are the reason that we do these races. You are the man!”, amidst tears and with a smile on both of their faces, Kelly crossed that line for the second time that day, and Robert, for the first, together each step of the way. At the end of the finish line were Kelly’s teammates, all cheering the two of them on, full of laughter and tears, and a recognition of what they each had done together for all those who have faced the effects of stroke in their lives and chosen to face the challenge head on, or feet first in this case.

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The race, as these events often are, was about far more than the fundraising, and has a far greater impact than just stroke heroes and thier families. It is an acknowledgement of the immense power of support and things one can do, whatever our challenges, with support and sheer tenacity and faith. It is a reminder that our individual actions impact each and all of us in ways we cannot know when we take them and of the hope that we can give one another in the process. Robert is now planning to finish the 5K in the Music City Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee in April, 2010 and to work with his peers who have had strokes to help one another see the possibilities. Kelly is still recuperating from the marathon and the week!

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Robert is the son of Alice and Bill Fitts of Spring Hill, Tennessee and currently resides with them on their farm. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma and up until his stroke, was an Investment Representative with Edward Jones. He is the father of twin boys, Brooks and Andrews.

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The story above was written in 2009. Robert Fitts crossed another finish line three years ago, May 2012.  Robert’s journey with massive brain injury ended quietly with his family by his side.  The lessons for this writer, watching Robert’s family with their mutual process of the stroke and of his death has been inspiring.  Without any intention to be anything than who they are, the family continues to reach out to others in need and anytime I speak with them, I come away with life lessons on giving love, being selfless, facing challenges with courage and the gentleness and kindness of the space they hold when others are hurting. Robert’s life and his death have brought unexpected gifts to their life.  The Heroic Journal recently interviewed one of the twins, Brooks Fitts.  Please watch for his story soon.