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Woman, 35, runs Boston Marathon 5 months after severe brain injury: 'Back from the dead'

After waking up from a coma, Rachel Foster had just one goal: to run again.
/ Source: TODAY

This past November, Rachel Foster, 35, and her husband John, 36, were out on a date night when they decided to take a ride on electric scooters in their Edmond, Oklahoma neighborhood. Suddenly, for reasons that are still a mystery, Rachel Foster lost consciousness and fell off her scooter. She ended up with a life-threatening brain injury and 17 broken bones.

After more than a week in a coma, multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation later, Rachel Foster, owner and head chef at Moni’s Pasta and Pizza restaurant, completed the Boston Marathon on Monday in what the couple calls a "miraculous" recovery.

"Before she could stand up on her own and walk on her own, she was telling me from her hospital bed, 'I still want to run Boston,'" John Foster tells TODAY.com.

Rachel Foster, who’s run about 10 marathons previously, had qualified and paid to run Boston before the accident. And she wasn’t going to let her goal slip away. "I'm a runner at heart and it brings me a lot of joy. It brings me a lot of stress relief," she says. "But I knew I was not in the shape of running — I could barely move my body." 

After surviving her life-threatening injuries, Rachel Foster embarked on a monthslong healing journey to make good on that promise to herself.

Rachel and John Foster
Rachel and John Foster co-own a local restaurant in Edmond, Oklahoma.Courtesy Rachel and John Foster

Emergency surgery and a "miraculous" recovery

Immediately after the crash, "I ran up to her and saw that she was unresponsive," says John Foster, whose past training as a lifeguard helped him realize the warning signs of unconsciousness immediately. "Her eyes were open and staring at nothing, and she was struggling to breathe," he recalls.

He called 911 and his wife was taken to OU Health, where doctors determined that she’d had a traumatic brain injury.

During that uncertain time, John Foster drew strength from the faith he and his wife shared. While she was in the hospital, three of their family members all independently sent him the same Bible verse — Luke 8:50 — in which Jesus reassures a family grieving what seems to be the death of their daughter. He tells them to "fear not: Believe only, and she will be made whole."

For John Foster, it wasn't just a coincidence. It became a "bedrock foundation of my faith," he says, as he and the team of doctors navigated his wife's precarious medical situation.

Neurosurgeons determined that the bleeding and pressure in Rachel Foster's brain was too severe and, ultimately, she underwent emergency surgery to remove part of her skull to relieve the pressure, John Foster recalls. The team discovered a blood clot in her brain as well.

She stayed in the hospital in a coma unable to breathe on her own for more than a week and showing no signs of improvement. "She was actively incurring more damage to her brain cells every second, every minute," John Foster says, at which point he felt another moment of faith.

"I was praying for her with her parents and my mom, and I felt a spiritual connection with God where he said to me, 'It is done.' And I felt that very strongly out of nowhere," he recalls.

After a third profound spiritual moment, he felt "very confident that God was going to either (heal Rachel) or he wasn't, and I was going to trust him either way." He adds, "I can’t tell you how dark and horrible it was to think about that, but I also can’t express to you the peace that I had in trusting God with it."

The scenario became so dire that he started the process of donating his wife's organs.

But on Nov. 19, 2022, just a day before she was set to be taken off the ventilator, Rachel Foster began to wake up.

"Her eyes popped open," John Foster recalls, adding that doctors had told him previously that could be a good sign or that it might not mean much. But, from there, things moved quickly.

The doctor rushed into the room and began testing her levels of functioning. He said, "Rachel, if you can hear my voice, squeeze my hand," John Foster recalled, "and she squeezed his hand." The doctor repeated instructions with the other hand, and again she squeezed his hand.

Then, he asked her to wiggle her toes, "and she started wiggling both of her feet," John Foster says.

But she still wasn't breathing on her own yet.

Rachel Foster in hospital after accident
Rachel Foster underwent emergency surgery after the accident to relieve pressure on her brain.Courtesy Rachel and John Foster

The doctor then turned to the ventilator and said, "Rachel, I'm turning the ventilator off and you have to breathe on your own," John Foster says, "which she hadn't done in 10 days, and he turned the ventilator off."

Finally, after an agonizing few seconds, she took a breath. With encouragement from the doctor, she took another.

"In literally the blink of an eye — or the opening of an eye — she went from completely unresponsive on every level to 'I'm here, I'm listening and I'm responding,'" he recalls. "And so everything changed."

Getting from a hospital bed to the Boston Marathon

Once she was awake, Rachel Foster still had a long way to go on her recovery journey.

She had no memory of getting on the scooter or the accident, and the pain medications made it tough for her to form new memories during the early part of her recovery, John Foster explains.

“My first real memory is waking up in a hospital bed, and it kind of felt like I was waking up underwater,” she says. “I was just this utterly confused.”

In January, Rachel Foster underwent surgery to replace the piece of her skull that was removed with an implant. That helped address her severe head pain and allowed her to focus more on making progress in rehabilitation. She then started working with therapists at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a hospital specializing in rehabilitation for people with conditions such as brain injuries, strokes and spinal cord injuries.

From the very beginning, her number one goal was to be able to run again. But the process was "painfully gradual," she says. She needed to rebuild muscles and balance so that she could, step by step, relearn to sit up in bed unassisted, stand up and, finally, walk.

"Her whole goal was to run the Boston," John Foster explains. "So every day after doing four or five hours of outpatient therapy, we would have lunch and then she would ask me to go on a walk so she could practice walking." 

The physical therapy took mental energy as well, Rachel Foster says, adding that her natural stubbornness helped her come back every day ready to improve — even through the low moments along the way.

"What I'm physically doing is taking one little step, but mentally I feel like a cheetah and I'm just running as fast as I can," she says. "That's what I was doing in my head because that's what I was trying to get my body to do, but it just wasn't there yet."

She felt like she really turned a corner when her therapist let her get on a treadmill. Slowly, she gained the balance to walk and, eventually, jog on the treadmill without holding onto the railings.

Rachel Foster and her running partner
Rachel Foster was medically cleared to run the marathon on the condition that she ran with a buddy. Her longtime running partner was an obvious choice.Courtesy Rachel and John Foster

From there, she began running on solid ground without assistance "from orange cone to orange cone," she recalls, before working her way up to running around a track. "John figured out how many times around you'd have to go around the track for one mile," she says, "so then I was off to the races. I was running in circles and I kind of felt like a hamster."

Before heading out to Boston, Rachel Foster was able to run 10 miles on the track. She also took the extra step to get medically cleared to run the marathon, which required her to run the race with a companion by her side. The obvious choice was her local running buddy of nearly 10 years.

Going into the race, Rachel Foster knew she had to mentally prepare and set appropriate expectations for herself. "This was the hardest marathon I've ever run just mentally and physically," she says. "I had to tell myself, 'It’s OK if you need to walk.' But I’m very proud to say that I did not walk; I ran the whole thing with (my running buddy) by my side."

And this week, on April 17, all the work paid off as she crossed the finish line.

What went through her head during all those miles? “I am back from the dead, dammit,” she says with a laugh. “That is not something to be shy about. That is a big deal. ... That's a heavy thought. I'm here running. I'm doing something that a lot of people would say is crazy." 

Rachel Foster is still on her recovery journey and doing outpatient therapy at a local rehabilitation center and working towards getting cleared to drive again. While she doesn't know when she'll be running another marathon, she's definitely planning to keep running.

And, looking back at all they've been through, the couple hopes that their story inspires people not to lose hope. "We're trying every day to do things the right way, to love God, to try and keep a positive attitude and be thankful that, through this, people are being encouraged," John Foster says.