“I recall her lying in the old Robins unit,” says Bandy, who is the deacon at Russell’s church, Emmanuel Episcopal in Southern Pines, and a former hospital chaplain associate. “She was in a coma, and it was very dire. Her family was called home and literally kept watch during the night. I think we were pretty well told that it would be a miracle if she survived.”
In the days following Jan. 21, 1998, the day that Russell landed on her head after being thrown from a horse, her family (including husband Mike, son Barron and daughter Landon), her friends, her co-workers and her medical team gave her about as much chance of surviving as they would have given her for hitting the numbers in a Powerball jackpot.
“Dr. (Malcolm) Shupeck told my daughter that IF I woke up, I would probably not walk or talk again,” Russell says. Nine years later, at age 60, Russell not only walks and talks, but works 12-hour nursing shifts at FirstHealth Moore Regional—the hospital that she credits with saving her life— and operates a 40-acre family horse farm and pottery business in Moore County Horse Country.
She also runs marathons. Yes, marathons. One of the most recent Disney World’s “Goofy’s Race and Half Challenge,” a combination half/full marathon event for which she won a “Pluto” medal for finishing the half on one day, a “Mickey” for completing the full 26.2 miles the next and a “Goofy” for doing both.
It was early January, but 84 degrees with 100-percent humidity, hot with no shade. Still, Russell prevailed.
“I knew exactly what I had to do, and I did it,” she says.
“Every time I passed by a microphone, I yelled, ‘This is what 60 can do.’”
Russell, who received her 20-year employment pin from Moore Regional late last year, is just as lucky to have reached 60 as she is to be running marathons.
Evelyn Dimps-Williams, R.N., is the assistant director of Moore Regional’s 2C nursing unit where Russell now works regular part-time shifts 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. She was in church when she got the call about Russell’s accident, and the congregation interrupted its service to pray for her injured colleague.
“I came immediately to the hospital,” Dimps-Williams says. “She was in a coma, and we didn’t think she was going to make it.”
Russell knows only what she is told about her accident and its immediate aftermath. She had saddled and just mounted her horse for a weekend show when something or someone “ran into” her horse. The startled animal “took off bucking and slammed me on my head,” she says.
A series of opportune events ensued, probably saving Russell’s life. A physician attending the horse show called Dr. Shupeck, one of the two neurosurgeons then on Moore Regional’s staff, to give him a heads up about the injury that was coming his way. An EMS crew responded immediately to the accident site and transported Russell to the hospital. Dr. Shupeck met her at the hospital, quickly read her CAT scan and rushed her into the operating room for surgery.
Dimps-Williams recalls the next few days as being “an awful time” for her and her staff. To get through it, they assumed the responsibility for some of Russell’s care even though she was on another nursing floor.
“We decided we were going to take care of her,” Dimps-Williams says. “We bathed her and talked to her. It made us feel better. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s not just someone you work with. It’s like it’s part of your family.”
Despite the predictions to the contrary, Russell woke up. Something—surely a combination of Dr. Shupeck’s skills, the nursing care she had received and the prayers of Tally Bandy, Dimps-Williams’ congregation and others, Russell believes—brought her out of her brain-jarred coma.
Her own strong will can’t be dismissed from the recovery equation, either. “She’s a feisty kind of person,” Dimps-Williams says.
“I’m just tough,” says Russell, who calls herself “a product of this hospital.”
“This hospital saved my life,” she says. “The nurses worked with me all the time, getting me back on my feet.”
During her hospital stay, Russell moved from Robins Intensive Care to Jackson Neurology and then to the Inpatient Center for Rehabilitation. She got her first look at her battered face during an unauthorized solo trip to the bathroom.
“I remember sneaking out of bed to go to the bathroom and seeing myself in the mirror and wondering who it was because I was so badly bruised,” she says.
Russell was in the hospital from Jan. 21 until the end of July 1998. A month of outpatient rehabilitation followed.
Irene Russell is pictured as she finishes running a Boston Marathon.
She had lost her sense of taste and smell, and her balance was precarious. To build her stamina and improve her balance, she took up exercise and running, joined a gym and began working out on a treadmill. By the following January, she was back at work on 2C intent on being every bit the nurse she had been before her injury.
“Irene worked very hard to make sure that she was doing everything that she was supposed to do,” Dimps-Williams says. “She worked hard to get back her skills. It was a long row for her to come back. I’m proud of her, because she was at death’s door, and she pulled herself out of that. All of a sudden, she turned back into Irene.”
Russell wasn’t satisfied with being “the old Irene,” though, so she set a goal for herself: to get in the best possible physical shape. To reach that goal, she set another one: to run marathons.
The idea came to her as she jogged on a treadmill and chatted with a friend on the machine beside her.
“She was going to run a marathon,” Russell says. “That’s how it all started.”
The treadmill epiphany took place in early 2000. On Oct. 22, after eight months of training, Russell ran in the Chicago Marathon, finishing in a “slow but steady” five hours and 22 minutes.
She has returned to Chicago for the marathon every year since. Another favorite race is in Richmond in her home state of Virginia. She has also run the Boston Marathon as well as a host of lesser-known events in North and South Carolina, Virginia and Florida
“I had gained weight when I couldn’t smell or taste,” she says. “I needed to prove that I could do something special like that, and I’ve done it ever since. Marathons are fun.”
Last fall, Russell completed three marathons in 21 days, moving from Chicago to Greensboro to Richmond to accomplish her feat. January’s “Goofy Challenge” was the 27th marathon of her running career. She ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon on Feb. 17 and plans to run the Ellerbe Marathon on March 25, the Bethel Hill Boogie in Ellerbe in June and her eighth Chicago Marathon in October.
Every November, Russell runs in FirstHealth’s half-marathon “Turkey Trot.” Although she usually wins her age division, she’s not overly impressed with the accomplishment.
“There’s not that many old broads running,” she says.