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Saugus teacher Shelagh O’Connell credits Boston Children’s Hospital for making it possible for her to run in her eighth Boston Marathon on Monday


  Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Shelagh O’Connell, one of nine Saugus residents who are registered to run in the 128th Boston Marathon, which is set for next Monday – Patriots’ Day, April 15. O’Connell, 35, is a special needs teacher at the Belmonte STEAM Academy who will be running in her eighth Boston Marathon – her third consecutive year helping to raise money for her favorite charity – Boston Children’s Hospital, the cause she credits for making her physically able to run the grueling 26.2-mile course that will draw a field of 33,000 runners from all over the world. She will be running for two children who have been receiving care at Boston Children’s Hospital since a short time after they were born. O’Connell grew up in Winthrop and is a 2007 graduate of Winthrop High School. She graduated from Salem State University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education with a minor in Psychology. She began teaching at the Veterans Elementary School in 2013 and has worked in Saugus Public Schools for more than a decade. She’s been a Saugus resident for the past four years. Highlights of this week’s interview follow.


  Q: How did you get involved in marathon running?

  A: I have been running since I was a child. And watching the marathon on TV as a kid, I know it was something I wanted to get involved with.

  Q: And why Boston?

  A: When I was young, I told my mom that I was going to run in the Olympics or run in the Boston Marathon.

Q: When did you start running?

  A: I started running when I was in the fifth grade.

  Q: How long have you been running? Why do you run? What do you get out of it?

  A: I have been running since I was 10. I did not love it at first as much as I do now. But when I started coming into my own as a runner, I loved it. I took pride in it, and I ran with a purpose.

  Q: How many Boston Marathons have you run in?

A: I have completed seven Boston Marathons. This will be my eighth.

  Q: What cause will you be running for this year?

  A: Boston Children’s Hospital. I’m one of the runner’s on the team “miles for miracles.” This will be the third year that I’ll be running. It’s the Number One Charity I would choose to run for. There are so many reasons why I love to run for Boston Children’s Hospital. I feel it’s my opportunity to give something back to an organization that’s done so much for me.

  Q: Please tell me about this special relationship you have with Boston Children’s Hospital.

  A: First of all, I wouldn’t be able to run at all if it weren’t for Boston Children’s. I was born with congenital dislocation of my right hip. I was diagnosed when I was six months old, and I wound up spending the first two years of my life in BCH. My team of doctors wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to walk. I was in a full body cast from the waist down. But here I am preparing to complete my eighth Boston Marathon. At the age of 17, I returned back to BCH, where I had a scare of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that after surgery, thankfully, came back benign.

  Q: Please tell me about the kids you are running for.

  A: For the second year in a row, I will be running for Finley and Harper, my patient partners. Since birth, they have both been patients at Boston Children’s and are seen by multiple doctors.

Finley is one of my students. Finley’s journey with Boston Children’s Hospital also started early on. Finley was born six weeks early and remained in the NICU for 16 days. At the age of two and a half, Finley was diagnosed with Smith Magenis Syndrome (SMS) by her team of doctors at BCH. SMS is a rare global developmental disorder. The major features of this condition include mild to moderate intellectual disability, delayed speech and language skills, distinctive facial features, sleep disturbances and behavioral outbursts. Throughout her testing, they discovered Finley was also born with one kidney.

Finley currently sees many doctors at BCH, including a neurologist for SMS, neurologist for autism, orthopedic, ophthalmologist, audiologist, a speech pathologist for augmentative communication and a nephrologist. Finley was in AFO braces when she first learned to walk, but very quickly grew out of them and is able to effortlessly run/walk on her own. She is currently receiving speech, OT, PT and ABA therapy. Finley had a neuropsych eval where she was also diagnosed with autism at the age of five.

Finley is now a fun loving, vibrant eight-year-old third-grader. She is full of love and light, even after her mother, Theresa, tragically lost her battle to breast cancer in 2021. She loves giving hugs, saying “Hi” and “Bye,” looking at books, listening to music, matching letters and numbers and working hard at school. Finley can now also recognize and verbally say the alphabet, numbers up to 20 along with matching colors and shapes.

  Q: What about Harper?

  A: Harper’s mom is formerly from Saugus. Her journey with BCH started when she was just over a week old. She was rushed to Children’s after her parents noticed she was breathing fast and working really hard to breathe. She was then admitted to BCH for one month. Harper underwent multiple tests, spent time in the ICU on bipap, received oxygen, etc. After spending a month at BCH. Harper was released with follow-up appointments and an oxygen monitor.

During all of Harper’s tests, many unrelated health issues evolved. Harper had a moderate Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), which, thankfully, closed on its own, cysts on her thyroid, fluid around her brain, reflux and hypotonia. Harper also had a tethered spinal cord, which was corrected at BCH when she was seven months old.

Harper is now three years old. She had a neuropsych eval at BCH which confirmed she is cognitively at an eight month level and she also received an autism diagnosis. Harper wears glasses to help her focus, is in speech, OT, PT and ABA therapy and is enrolled in school full-time.

Harper has learned to pass things to her parents that she wants, and pull them to show them what she wants. Harper is a very happy, loving child who loves Disney princess movies, swings at the park, pools and splash pads. Harper also loves jumping on her trampoline and is able to utilize equipment at the playground independently.

  Q: Talk about the sense of accomplishment you get from this exhausting and physically challenging activity. Not everybody gets out and runs a Boston Marathon.

  A: Completing seven Boston Marathons is one of my greatest accomplishments. Running Boston ignites my soul. There is absolutely no comparison to anything else.

  Q: What’s it like at the start of the race? Or, what do you think it will be like?

  A: The Boston Marathon is a wave of emotions, from the walk to the start to the cross of the finish line. There’s a lot of energy: Everyone is excited, yet nervous and ready to get going. The only way home is your body.

  Q: Do you have friends or running buddies you’ll be running with in this year’s marathon?

  A: Yes! One of my besties, Emily Spadafora, is also running for Boston Children’s Hospital. We share the same patient partners.

Q: How many miles do you do in an average year?

A: Umh … a lot. Just training alone is over 400 miles.

Q: Do you do other marathon races besides Boston? Or, is this your first marathon? And will you run in others this year?

A: I am loyal to Boston. I have been offered others, but my personal goal is to run 10 Boston Marathons – five of them with Boston Children’s.

Q: How do you prepare mentally and physically for this event?

A: Physically: I run, spin, do cross/strength training and yoga. Mentally: I think of the two girls I am running for, my family, Gina and friends.

  Q: Any special meal regimen you do before the race? Like carbo loading?

A: Yes. I am very strategic with what I eat from Friday to Monday. Carbs the night before (Sunday) for sure.

Q: How many pairs of shoes do you go through during the course of a year?

  A: Between three and four pairs.

  Q: What’s your fondest Boston Marathon memory? That would be as an observer.

  A: As a spectator, seeing my favorite female runner, Shalane Flanagan, run up Heart Break Hill. (Shalane Flanagan is an accomplished marathon runner from Marblehead who won a Silver Medal in the 10,000 meter run 2008 Olympics and became the first American woman in 40 years to win the Women’s New York City Marathon, when she won the race in 2017.)

My favorite memory while running in the race was looking up and seeing Henry Richard, Martin Richard’s brother, running right in front of me. (Martin Richard, 8, was the youngest to die during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. In the 2022 Boston Marathon, 20-year-old Henry Richard ran and completed the race in memory of his late brother.)

  Q: How long will you keep running this race?

  A: Until I reach 10.

  Q: After running a Boston Marathon, what will you do the next day?

  A: Move my body a little and rest.

  Q: Have any friends or family members run this race before?

  A: No, just me.

  Q: Anything else that you would like to share about this experience?

  A: I often hear “I can’t even run a mile, let alone a marathon.” It’s not impossible. Find a charity that is close to your heart, put in the work, and I guarantee it will change your life and you will be back for more. The Boston Marathon is electric.

I wanted to take a moment to express my heartfelt gratitude for all the generous donations made towards my fundraising for Boston Children’s Hospital. Thank you for your kindness, generosity and unwavering support. I could not do this without my village behind me. Special thanks to the O’Connell-Vozzella Families and Gina. I couldn’t do it without you.


—Shelagh O’Connell’s fund-raising goal is $10,000. Anyone wishing to support her can donate by going to the Boston Children’s Hospital “miles for miracles” page at https://secure.childrenshospital.org/site/TR/ActiveEvents/ActiveEvents?px=1897061&pg=personal&fr_id=2390

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