Frances Alvarez has endured the effects of an agonizing brain tumor. A car accident changed Raphael Martinez’ life in the blink of an eye.
But both Miami-Dade County residents have a positive outlook on life and will be together at the start line of the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon January 24 thanks to their participation in Achilles International, an organization devoted to providing opportunities for the disabled through participation in mainstream sporting events.
More than 50 Achilles athletes are expected at the start line for the race, with at least 40 signed up to cycle the entire marathon. They will go off at 5:45 a.m., just before the thousands of able-bodied runners. Domestic entries from athletes with disabilities have come from as far as California, with international participants from France, Germany and Italy already signed up. More than a dozen members of the national Freedom Team will also participate. Alvarez and Martinez train weekly with a South Florida Achilles group at the Homestead Air Reserve Base and are looking forward to participation in the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon weekend activities.
Alvarez is taking part in the warm-up Publix Tropical 5K race on Saturday morning and Martinez will hand-cycle the full Marathon on Sunday.
Though most races in Miami are uniquely flat, no participant will have as up-hill a battle as the one Alvarez faces every day of her life.
When she was 10, doctors diagnosed the now-24-year-old with a polycystic astrocytomabrain tumor. Three years after she arrived from Puerto Rico with her brother to join her father in the U.S, life would never be the same.
Surgery removed most of the tumor, but because it developed on the right side of the brain stem, doctors couldn’t remove the entire mass. They performed a partial reception on the tumor, but a post-operative stroke resulted in the left side of her body not being able to perform basic functions -involuntary shaking has been another consequence.
“A stroke usually causes that part of your brain to die, but with me it messed up my brain signals – they are turned around,” she says.
The part of the tumor that remained was treated 11 years later with a radiation regimen in hopes of it shrinking. But common symptoms remain today: vision and hearing loss, extreme migraines, memory loss and seizures.
In addition to her non-functioning left side, which includes the absence of sight in her left eye, Alvarez also has limited vision in her right eye, and is considered visually impaired.
Still, she was able to attend North Miami Beach High School until her senior year when severe symptoms caused her to have to be home schooled in order to graduate.
“My life has been in and out of hospitals,” she says. “Sometimes I just want to be at home lying down, but I have to get out and take my mind off of it, even when the pain is a 10. I’ve had migraines that last all day and won’t go away.
The sounds of plates, people clapping… makes my eardrums shake.”
Alvarez views herself as the ever-forgetful Dory in the movie Finding Nemo — always swimming upstream with the outlook that the ‘glass is always half full.’
“I’m the little blue fish,” says Alvarez. “I forget everything, but I just keep swimming. “I don’t see very well. I don’t hear very well. I don’t walk very well. But don’t let anything stop you. It’s only a little movie but I think about it every day.
“Right now they don’t know what to do with me. My case is that rare. They can’t do anything else but manage the pain and keep it at a level where I can function. They call in people and they don’t know how to deal with it. In reality there’s nothing they can do anymore.”
Over a year ago, Alvarez met former Achilles South Florida Regional Director Chris Holcomb through “Goalball,” a team sport designed specifically for blind athletes. Holcomb extended an invitation to join Achilles.
Alvarez has completed four half marathons and three 10K races in which she requires a pair of guides because of her visual impairment. One guide on a bicycle stays to her right — the plastic disks in the bike’s spokes help Alvarez know where she is at all times. The other guide goes ahead and clears a path.
“I have to tape my hand to the handlebar because I can’t hold on with my left hand,” she says. “But I love being able to get out and see what I can do.”
Because of the number of participants and safety issues in the Miami Marathon, Alvarez will participate in the Tropical 5K run that starts on Watson Island and ends at the tip of South Beach.
The 5K will present a monumental challenge for Alvarez, who will continue to need a pair of guides to navigate the race. She’s not sure how long it will take her to get to the finish line. “I can’t run because of my legs,” she says.“I walk pretty slow.”
During the main event on Sunday, Alvarez will be cheering on her Achilles teammates from the sidelines.
Raphael Martinez will be one of them. His life changed abruptly on Feb. 11, 1995, when the then 20-year-old flipped his car while running late for work in Hesperia, Ca. He has not walked since.
“I was ejected and when I landed I twisted and ended up facing down,” he says. “The lower half of my body was facing up. They took me to the hospital and put me back together again.”
Twenty years later, Martinez, now 41 and living in West Dade, finds himself celebrating when February rolls around.
The month is his birth month, but it has taken on even more meaning because of the accident.
“I celebrate the whole month,” he says. “It’s (the accident) always going to be there. It was a really crazy experience.
It makes me feel weird to think that I’ve spent half my life in a wheelchair. I don’t even remember what it was like to walk.
“But I’m living life like any other person. I don’t feel or see myself as disabled. I was reborn that day as this Raphael Martinez. That replaced the other Raphael Martinez. The whole thing has made me a better person. It opened my heart to do a lot of good to other people.”
The transformation is what caused him to leave a 14-year job as a telecommunications technician at Miami International Airport in 2014. Martinez wanted to do more with his time. Now, he is a part-time greeter at American Airlines Arena, and has the time to immerse himself in a number of volunteer opportunities. There’s a mentoring program at Jackson Memorial Hospital where he part of a support system to patients adjusting to life with spinal cord injuries. He volunteers with Sabrina Cohen Foundation, which has teamed up with the City of Miami Beach to improve beach access for those with disabilities.
The break from fulltime work has also given Martinez the time to train with Achilles, where has developed a hand-cycling “bug” over the last year. The Miami Marathon will be his fourth marathon – last month he competed in the Palm Beach Marathon.
“My goal is to be able to do New York, Boston, LA, the big ones. That’s what I want to do,” he says. “My goal is to get out there, get off the chair and into the hand-cycle. I’m trying to live the rest of my life. Sports is as good an outlet for people,” says Martinez. “There is life after a spinal cord injury.”