When going off to college, most students don’t expect to wake up one day paralyzed, told they may never walk again, get diagnosed with cancer, undergo massive spinal surgery… all to beat the odds and run the Boston Marathon years later. But this is Gabbi Dos Ramos’ story. I had the opportunity to speak with Gabbi about her cancer journey and how she came to the decision to run the marathon for her city.
Selena Frongillo: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Gabby Dos Ramos: “I’m from Massachusetts and received my undergraduate degree at Northeastern University. After working in marketing technology post-grad, I decided to go back to school to pursue a Doctorate in Physical Therapy. I have always been passionate about working with others, as well as overall wellness, so pursuing physical therapy has been the perfect fit. I am currently enrolled in Mass General Hospital’s DPT program, which starts this summer!”
SF: Can you talk a bit about your cancer journey?
GDR: “When I was a freshman in college, seemingly out of nowhere, I woke up paralyzed from the waist down. I’m sure I went into immediate shock because I cannot remember a single thought or emotion. My parents rushed me to the hospital and a doctor determined I had a tumor in my spine, which had begun pressing into my spinal cord, causing the paralysis. They were going to begin emergency surgery, but there was a high chance I would never walk again. Again, I don’t recall much of it, but apparently, I calmly said something to the extent of ‘That’s alright. Let’s get started,’ and they wheeled me off to surgery.
“After an 8-hour surgery, I woke up. I could barely wiggle my toes, and I couldn’t feel a thing in my legs. This led to my month-plus stay at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network in Boston. Every day I went to physical therapy and occupational therapy, pushing myself to get back as much as possible. Afterward, I went on to complete nine months of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by enrolling in college classes in the middle of my final treatment.”
SF: What kept you going?
GDR: “To start, I had an incredible support network keeping me going. My family, my friends, and practically my whole town was there for me. I had an amazing oncologist, Dr. Choy, Nurse Practitioner, Judianne, plus all of the nurses and other staff making MGH feel like a safe place – like a second home.”
SF: Where are you today in terms of your health? How did you get here?
GDR: “Today I am over seven years cancer-free. I live in Boston currently, and I’ve traveled a bit around the US and lived in Central America and Europe. I am going to be a Doctor of Physical Therapy and am running the Boston Marathon with Spaulding Rehab.
“Getting to this point in my life has not been easy and it hasn’t been pretty. I would be remiss if I left the impression that there was a lot, if any, glamor in being a cancer survivor and getting back to reality.
“In undergrad, I struggled with brain fog and keeping up with a competitive university. I had to deal with a lot of trauma from a year of having my life turned upside-down, only to feel like magically it was supposed to go back to normal. If I was to give anyone advice as a cancer survivor, I think it would be to realize that your life has already changed so much and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s no need to race back to being who you were, you can embrace who you are now.
“I also can’t emphasize enough how much support I’ve had. I have made so many changes in my life in the past seven years, and I can’t believe the amount of love I have received from friends and family through it all. They really are the backbone to everything I have done and will continue to do.”
SF: “Can you tell us about your pursuit of health/fitness as a career?”
GDR: “As I said, I have always been active. After my surgery, my doctor informed me I should avoid any high-impact sports like running. Running was pretty much all I knew when it came to working out, so I had no idea where to begin. At first, I would just sit on the elliptical, watch an episode of something on Netflix, and go home. I missed pushing myself in a sport and how strong that made me feel. This quickly led to me learning about lifting – I fell in love. Shortly after, I earned my personal trainer certification while working full-time in marketing technology.
“It was a hobby I loved, but I hated a lot of the messaging I saw, specifically targeting young women. I wanted to create a space where women could learn about fueling their body with nourishing food, while not feeling restricted. I wanted them to learn about falling in love with working out and eating better, rather than focusing on ‘trimming fat’ or ‘toning’ or whatever other solely-physical changes they were seeking.
“I started an Instagram just to share workouts and show how I found balance with working out and eating well, while still going out with my friends and enjoying candy, fried food, fast food, and whatever else. Now, I work with Team Brooklyn Built and have helped over 50 women discover food freedom and a passion for working out because of how it makes them feel, not how society expects them to look.”
SF: Have you always been a runner/have you ever run a marathon before?
GDR: “I haven’t been a runner in a long long time! I loved running competitively in middle school/early high school. I fell out of love with the competition aspect, but I still had a passion for it, up until my spine surgery when I was a freshman in college. Two years ago, on a whim, I went to see a spine specialist who encouraged me to take up activities such as running to strengthen my spine where it had been weakened from surgery and radiation.
“Last summer I went on a few short runs, just enjoying getting outside and challenging myself in a new way. This past April I got more serious about it, running with a schedule without any set goals. Then in October, I went to see the 125th Boston Marathon. It was something I always thought I would one day run, and I realized that it was actually the perfect time for me to go for it.
“A few months later the charity team applications opened and I applied and was accepted to run with Spaulding Rehab, the same facility that helped get me back on my feet in 2014. Between my incredible experience there, and my goal to become a physical therapist, I couldn’t be more excited to represent them at the 126th Boston Marathon.”
SF: Can you talk about the tattoo on your back and what it signifies for you and your battle?
GDR: “The tattoo on my back is the date of my surgery to the last day of chemotherapy drawn in a circle. It is there to remind me that all things, whether they are good or bad, come to an end. The world keeps spinning on, life keeps going, so I should embrace every minute of it.”
SF: What motivates or inspires you?
GDR: “I think my biggest inspiration is my family. My parents are immigrants from Venezuela and have built every single thing they have. My parents and my sister are all so passionate in what they do and they give 100% to everything. They have been that way my whole life and it has made me want to not only do the best I can, but to find the things in life that truly excite me.”
SF: If you could share one message with the world, what would it be?
GDR: “Sometimes when things are really really difficult, we can throw ourselves a pity party and ask, ‘why me’ or ‘this always happens to me.’ Just remember that there can be beautiful and amazing moments, even when things are tough. You just have to keep your eyes open and keep looking.”
SF: What’s next for you? Any other goals down the pipeline?
GDR: “Right now I’m excited for some routine and more ‘boring’ in my life! I’ve been moving all over since deciding to go back to school, and now that I’m finally enrolled in a program and know where I’m going to live for a few years, I just want to study hard, spend a lot of time with my family and friends, and enjoy every minute of reaching my career goals.”
SF: Where can people find you?
All photos courtesy Gabbi Dos Ramos