Special Report: The Runner

The sun hasn’t risen yet. It’s going to be a muggy afternoon, so Sue Henderson gets her work in before the day starts in the city.

Gentle footsteps echo around empty Evansville corners. It’s a hero leaving her mark.

Every runner has their reason, and to find hers you need to go back to the beginning of 2007; walking was a way to lose weight.

Her finish line then was the Evansville half-marathon in October, but her journey is anywhere from over.

Sue Henderson is a runner. “Ease up on that runner term,” she jokes, “I’m a joggler.”

Sue started out walking a half-mile every morning, then a half-mile became a mile, a mile turned into 3 miles, 3 miles into 13.1 miles – 35 times over. “It just kind of ballooned from there,” she says, pausing to remember how many half-marathon’s it has been since she crossed that first starting line.

Over the years her passion on pavement grew, and so did her heart. A friend in her running circle joined the Saint Jude Hero program; athletes dedicated to raising money for the children’s hospital in Memphis.

“I literally sat at my desk and bawled,” Sue says, holding back tears. “It was so amazing, and I thought, ‘If I ever get a chance to do that.’”

A few years later, she did, and raised $6,500. “I signed up right away the next year and $11,000,” Sue adds with a smile. Over the years, Sue has helped Saint Jude with more than $140,000 in donations.

She may not set records on the road, but her running is more than a race.

Sitting at her kitchen table, the weight of her effort seems to come crashing down. “I have everything I need and I have healthy children,” she says, “when you see what Ara went through, I don't know how she gets out of bed every day.”

Sue's cousin, Ara Hertel has lived with pain for nearly 16 years. It started when she noticed spots on her son’s skin, but a check-up was hardly alarming.

A day later, Brock’s doctor was on the phone.

“When I saw it on the caller ID,” Ara remembers, “I knew something was wrong.”

Brock’s doctor sent him to Saint Mary’s hospital where a couple of tests were done. They confirmed it was leukemia.

“That was Mother’s Day, 1999,” Ara says.

In the blink of an eye, Brock and the family were 300 miles away in Memphis. Saint Jude Children’s Hospital is for the most severe disease and most intense treatment.

Brock battled for 2 years, needing more and more care. He’s a 10-year-old with a bone marrow transplant getting full-body radiation. “For all the bad days there were lots more good days,” Ara says.

When doctors give a bone marrow transplant it’s typical to count out 100 day as a target date to go home. In some ways he did.

Easter Sunday, 2001. The day he was supposed to go home.

“That day was,” Ara says needing to pause and collect herself. “It was pretty much the worst day of my life.”

They couldn't save Brock, but they can save boys and girls like him. That keeps Ara and Sue going strong. All the money Sue has raised over the years has earned Sue the 2017 National Saint Jude Hero award.

“If anybody deserves this award it’s her, not me.” Sue apologizes for breaking down. An unnecessary gesture given the gravity of what’s laid out on her couch.

Ara has a scrapbook filled with memories of Brock. A favorite is her son wearing a Jeff Gordon No. 24 hat. “It brings back good memories,” she says, “but there’s a couple of pages that are rough to look at.”

A hero is an ordinary person who finds strength to endure despite overwhelming obstacles. Ara isn’t afraid to call her cousin one. Sue is hesitant to accept the term. “The true heroes are the kids,” Ara adds smiling.

Is there ever a more fitting word?

To say Sue and Ara have tough times in their own battles is an understatement, but it’s during tough times when the hero within is revealed.


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