Veteran is blind, deaf and determined to run in Boston Marathon
By CHRIS MASON | Boston Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 19, 2017
A roadside bomb robbed Staff Sgt. Aaron Hale of his eyesight, meningitis stole his hearing, but nothing can take his fighting spirit.
Deaf, blind and smiling, Hale is readying to triumph over his next challenge: the 2017 Boston Marathon.
"My life is so rich with love and good fortune that it is very hard to complain about anything," Hale said.
Hale is currently at the NeuroLIFE Institute in Georgia, working on his balance and vestibular rehab. His progress is overseen by Dr. Nicholas DeFlumeri, who's never come across a patient quite like Hale.
"He's one story that needs to be shared. Not only is it essentially miraculous what function he has now, but it's miraculous of his spirit. It's miraculous the power of the mind over the human body," DeFlumeri said. "If he didn't fixate on these goals, like fixating on this marathon, I don't think he would be where he is as far as function goes. I don't even think he'd be able to walk."
Hale is a military lifer. At 21, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a culinary specialist. He served on ships for eight years before deciding to take a leap to the Army in 2007. There, Hale earned one of the most perilous jobs in the military; he became a member of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal team.
Hale began disarming bombs.
He was on his second tour in Afghanistan when everything changed in 2011. His unit got a call for a roadside IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and Hale successfully diffused it. While sweeping the surrounding area, he discovered a second bomb, hidden. It immediately detonated.
The IED sprayed shrapnel into his eyes, permanently blinding him and breaking every single bone in his face. More than two dozen surgeries followed.
"In the first days after the blast I was in the bed at Walter Reed feeling sorry for myself," Hale recalled. "The why me's and what if's flooded my thoughts. It was the love and support of my family that kept me from getting swept away in that downward spiral. Yes, I was blind, but I am also still a father, son, and soldier. My life is not mine alone. My mother, father, brother, sister, son, and my now fiancee hold stake in my life. I wasn't allowed to give up.
"My son, Cameron, is now 6 years old. I want him to be able to point at me and say, 'That's my dad! He can do anything!' "
So Hale set out to do just that.
He actually began running by happenstance. His goal was to climb a mountain, but there weren't many of those to practice on where he lived in Florida, so Hale started running distance to train. For the time being, he still had his hearing, so he used audio technology as an aid.
Hale summited a slew of mountains, including reaching a point at 18,000 feet in Peru, and in the process found he really loved to run. He was always accompanied by a guide. Rather than seeing that as a hindrance, Hale looks at it as an opportunity to get to know somebody new for several hours. Ultra-marathoner Frank Fumich will be running alongside Hale next month.
Hale completed a number of marathons before realizing that he'd already qualified for Boston three times.
In 2015, he conquered his first Boston Marathon. It was smooth sailing until fate threw another curveball his way.
The following August, Hale contracted bacterial meningitis. They never determined exactly how he caught it, but there were extensive complications from the IED blast, and Hale was left completely deaf. Initially, doctors believed he'd never hear again.
Hale was back to square one.
"I was well on my way to mastering this blindness thing when the meningitis came along," Hale said. "All of my tools and technology to help me are audio based. The talking phone, computer, and bar code scanners were all now silent. I felt trapped in my body. Blind I had figured out, but deaf and without a sense of balance was nearly too much to bare."
Fortunately, he had McKayla Tracy to fall back on. The two had long been family friends, and Hale struck up a long-distance relationship with her in the months preceding his illness. When the meningitis hit, she got on the first plane to see him.
"I never went back," Tracy exclaimed happily. The two are now engaged.
Recovering from the meningitis, Hale was bedridden without sight or sound. He and Tracy created a way to communicate where she would spell letters out on his hand, but he was still in the dark. It was returning to his roots as a chef that helped bring him back.
"The feeling of being trapped inside my body is extremely lonely and isolating," Hale said. "I turned to the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner as a way to take my mind off the problems at hand and the seemingly endless wait for relief from the isolation, if any was to come."
"He kind of took recovery in getting lost in the kitchen and just enjoying the process of creating food," Tracy said.
Even without sight or sound, Hale knew his kitchen like the back of his hand. He began making desserts for his first Thanksgiving with Tracy, and then just didn't stop. Fudge was his specialty, and the two now have their own dessert company, Extra Ordinary Delights. Hale hasn't lost his sense of humor.
"The fudge was piling up to the point McKayla was sneaking it out the door to give away to friends and neighbors. 'Sneaking.' As though you have to be stealthy around a deaf-blind guy," Hale joked. "Soon, we were getting requests for more. Extra Ordinary Delights was born!"
Then, Hale finally caught a medical break. He had surgery to insert cochlear implants in his ears, and one of them took. DeFlumeri says Hale will likely never regain hearing in his right ear, but it's coming back in his left.
After mastering running blind, Hale had a whole new set of challenges with a hearing impairment. It greatly affected his balance, and he had spells of vertigo.
Hale didn't quit, it's just not how he's wired. DeFlumeri shared what he'd tell most patients in Hale's condition.
"I would say it's highly improbable," DeFlumeri said. "If most patients said: 'My goal is to run a marathon,' and they were in his position, I would say, 'That's quite an ambitious goal.' "
But Hale isn't most patients.
"He has the spirit of champion," DeFlumeri said. "This guy is an inspiration."
Just over a year after the meningitis hit, Hale set a new personal record in the Akron Marathon. Blind and partially deaf, he finished the race in under four hours.
"You look at a guy like that and see all the good that he's doing within his life and inspiring others, how could you not be a little more appreciative of your day?" DeFlumeri said. "It's not feeling sorry for him, its being empowered to say, 'Hey, look at what he's doing with the tools he has and look at all the tools in front of me that I don't even use to their potential.'
When Hale sees a mountain in front of him, he's going to climb it, whether it's a literal one or not.
"I've been running on five years of bonus days since that IED found me in 2011," Hale said. "I already see each day as a gift, but couple that with the facts that life was nearly stolen from me a couple times and how amazing my life is today . . . It is very easy to lace up each morning and attack the day."
(c) 2017 the Boston Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.