SARATOGA SPRINGS — In the middle of the night, the two daughters wandered around the hospital looking for their 70-year-old mom.
They peered through one window and spotted her shoes, old pink Asics trainers with a funky, jumbled pattern of colored lines.
“She was a preschool teacher and always in charge,” Tonya Yasenchak said. “She beat me and my sister in the Freihofer’s, so she’s very strong, and to see her in a situation where you wonder if she’s going to live … you get in a fog.”
“We were tempted to crawl through the window,” Tara Yasenchak said.
Hours earlier — and four days after she had finished ahead of her daughters, both in their 40’s, in last year’s Freihofer’s Run for Women in Albany — Kathy Yasenchak had been in her PJ’s getting ready for bed, when she felt a sharp pain along the top of her back.
Because her husband, George, was late and missed dinner, she had eaten the whole pot of spaghetti herself. Sooo … indigestion. Easy diagnosis.
What Kathy had no way of knowing was that a genetic defect in her aorta finally had come to collect a bill 70 years in the making. The force of blood flow from her heart split holes in the vessel, the trickle through a dam accelerating with a sudden fury. Many torturous hours later, the pink shoes were jutting out from under some sheets as Kathy was wheeled down a hallway at St. Peter’s Hospital. She had hours to live …
Last Wednesday, Kathy Yasenchak sat on a stool at the Uncommon Grounds in downtown Saratoga, laughed and stuck out her leg to show off her old shoes. “When they rolled me down the hall [to surgery], one doctor said, ‘This woman ran in the Freihofer’s on Saturday. Look at her running shoes.’ After that, they all called me ‘Pink Sneakers.’
“They’re ancient, but I’m not giving them up. I went back to St. Peter’s with a friend who was having a heart procedure, and when they saw me, they said, ‘Pink Sneakers is back!’
“‘… And she’s walking!'”
Kathy Yasenchak is doing much more than walking these days. In fact, she intends to run — repeat, run — her 15th straight Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k on June 1, despite a near-death experience to an episode called aortic dissection. Only 20 percent of those afflicted even make it to the hospital alive, much less return to a full life after what is a long, complicated and grueling surgery, and months of painful recovery.
The Freihofer’s abounds with interesting stories each year, and the friends and family who will run and walk the race this year as the Kathy’s Comeback team will represent the race’s themes of empowerment and vitality as profoundly as any in the 41-year history of the Freihofer’s.
“Wonderful. I felt totally good,” Kathy said of last year’s race, when she finished in 32:28, 36 seconds ahead of Tara. “And that was just four days before my aorta … let go.
“When I was operated on, when they found out that I ran the Freihofer’s that Saturday, they said, ‘There’s no way this woman survived.'”
“It’s amazing, but at the same time, not surprising, knowing her and how she’s so diligent and committed to things,” Tara said. “Everything was normal. We went to our favorite lunch spot after the race, she was not straining. She walked five miles with my father the next day. No wheezing or anything.
“She’s so light on her feet, she just flows through the crowd.”
It wasn’t always such for Kathy, a non-runner until the age of 57, when she finally got tired of watching her daughters race at Freihofer’s — and watching other mothers running with their daughters.
Her first attempt at a run did not go well.
“I was totally clueless,” she said with a laugh. “I went to the [Saratoga Spa] State Park early in the morning, because my husband and daughter run there. I tried to run a lap around the reflecting pool, and, well, I never made it once around. I was really done in.
“But I stuck with it. I went back the next day.”
“It’s not even a quarter of a mile,” Tara said.
When Kathy ran her first Freihofer’s 15 years ago, her daughters stuck with her to make sure she got through the race OK.
“They weren’t going to desert dear old Mom,” Kathy said. “And every year after that, I beat them. Ha ha. I left them in the dust. In the dust.”
Kathy worked for 20 years as a preschool teacher at the Saratoga Abundant Life Church, and now is a bus monitor for special needs kids in the mornings.
Even though she got a late start to running, she has always been active in outdoor sports, a picture of health who refused to believe that something was seriously wrong when the pain in her back showed up out of nowhere.
It took some forceful convincing from her family to go have it checked out, and after a battery of tests that turned up nothing, she was ready to go home, pain or not. After one final blood test that tracked where it was flowing, “the doctor walks in, and his face was ashen,” she said.
If she didn’t have emergency surgery right away, she was told, she wouldn’t make it to the morning. Two ambulance rides later, she was lucky, in the wee hours of the morning, to find herself in the hands of Dr. Niloo Edwards, the chief of cardiac and vascular services at St. Peter’s.
“I said, ‘Have you ever done this before?’ He goes, ‘Yes, I have.’ I said, ‘What’s your batting average?'” Kathy said. “As if I could do anything about it. He just smiled. The nurse said, ‘He’s the best. You got the best.’ That’s how I know it was a miracle.”
“As soon as they cut me open — and it’s a radical surgery — they saw your breastbone open and pull your ribs [apart]. When Dr. Edwards saw the extent of the damage, he realized he could not get it done in eight hours. There was another doctor, a standby surgeon, and he said to him, ‘You’ve got to jump in here, and the two of us have to do this.'”
The damage was so bad that not only did the surgeons have to sew up holes, but they had to replace whole segments of aorta.
Fortunately for Kathy, the disruption in blood flow didn’t permanently damage any other organs. She was among the 3 percent who could return from an aortic dissection to a full life. A week or two later on a follow-up, “He [Edwards] said, ‘I don’t want to see you again for a year. Oh, that means you’ll have a chance to run in the Freihofer’s! Let me know what your time is.’
“And I liked that,” Kathy said.
Getting to that point was a whole other ordeal, though. It started with just a painful walk to the mailbox, maybe 30 yards to the end of the driveway.
Friends at Abundant Life started a sign-up sheet to walk with her, and whether she wanted to or not, the doorbell started ringing three times a day for strolls to neighbors’ mailboxes that gradually grew in distance.
“You don’t feel like doing anything, believe me, when they slice you down the middle,” she said.
When the weather got worse, but her range was getting better, Kathy graduated from mailboxes to the cushioned elevated walk/jog/run track at the Saratoga YMCA.
Just staying alive was a tall enough obstacle, but once she got past that, returning to Freihofer’s was always the goal, and now she’s to the point where that will be a reality in a few weeks.
It started as a simple, but meaningful way of connecting with her daughters. This time, Kathy Yasenchak will be surrounded by a team thrilled to fold her into its embrace.
“I feel a little funny about it, but they said, ‘Mom, everybody wants to do this for you,'” Kathy said.
“I’m over-the-top grateful. Because it’s so good to feel good. Don’t we take for granted that we can just get up and walk and run? This took it to an altogether different dimension. This was life and death, and we very rarely, in our thought life, get to that point.”
“I get choked up just talking about it,” Tara said. “I don’t know if I’m going to stop crying through the whole race.”
“I’m getting choked up just talking about it, just from your question,” Tonya said. “I’ll probably be a mess. I think it’s going to be a joyous, hot mess.”