Losses that helped her to finally overcome

Kathleen Boyle Wrigley will run Sunday in the Philadelphia Marathon - her seventh marathon - to celebrate the life of her late brother, Officer Danny Boyle.

On a cold night in February 1991, Officer Danny Boyle, patrolling alone, stopped a stolen Buick on a desolate North Philadelphia street. As the driver got out, he told a passenger, "I'll take care of this." He fired at least eight shots, one of which hit Boyle in the head. He died two days later at Temple University Hospital, with his parents at his bedside.

Danny Boyle was only 21 at the time, a recent graduate of the Police Academy. His sister, Kathleen, then 20, was devastated. Two decades later, her brother is still a vivid presence.

"I'm constantly reminded of Danny when I see my son, Patrick, who has inherited so many characteristics of his uncle's personality. Like Danny, he's very sensitive and tenderhearted and he really cares about the people around him."

Kathleen, who grew up in the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia, is now Kathleen Boyle Wrigley. She lives in Fargo, N.D., and is married to Drew Wrigley, a former U.S. attorney who was recently named lieutenant governor. Besides Patrick, she and Drew have two daughters - Quinn, 9, and Harper, 21/2. Kathleen met Drew when he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Soon after their 1998 wedding, they ran the Broad Street Run together.

Kathleen Wrigley will be among the 12,000 folks at the starting line of the Philadelphia Marathon Sunday. This will be her seventh marathon and her first Philly Marathon. She is running to celebrate Danny's life and legacy. A scholarship fund in his memory has given out more than a million dollars in tuition aid to more than 600 students. Most of the beneficiaries were pupils at Archbishop Ryan, Danny and Kathleen's alma mater.

Kathleen, 40, is looking forward to running here for another reason. It will be, she says, "an opportunity to show my family and friends that I'm fixed."

Kathleen will not be running alone. She will be accompanied by a guide because she is partly blind, unable to see much on the right side of her field of vision.

"I don't want to cut someone off or run into something," she says.

Kathleen began running when she was in graduate school at Temple, mainly to keep her figure. In time, she supplemented her runs with workouts at the gym. She became so proficient at aerobics that she eventually became an instructor. Slender and beautiful, with sparkling teeth and a personality to match, she was a poster girl for health and fitness.

In 2004, something strange began happening to her face - spells of numbness that came and went. She worried at first that she might have multiple sclerosis. An MRI had good news: no MS. The bad news: She had an aneurysm, a weak and bulging blood vessel in her brain that required immediate surgery.

"I have a ticking time bomb in my head waiting to explode," Kathleen remembers thinking. "Am I going to die?"

During the week and a half between the discovery of the aneurysm and the operation, Kathleen doted on her family.

"I literally wrapped myself around my husband and kids," Kathleen recalls. "All I could do was hope and pray things would be OK and that I'd be able to come home and raise them. They were so young they'd never have any memory of me, so I wrote them letters and rocked them to sleep."

At a hospital in St. Paul, Minn., that specializes in brain aneurysms, doctors sealed off the ballooning blood vessel with tiny platinum coils threaded from her groin to her brain through the femoral artery - a delicate procedure. Says Kathleen: "They were nothing short of miracle workers."

The operation was a success, and within six months, Kathleen was running again, though she had severe dizzy spells and was forbidden to lift anything heavy lest it raise her blood pressure.

Around this time, a few girlfriends signed up for the 2005 New York Marathon. Running a marathon had always been Kathleen's ambition.

"This was the opportunity I'd been waiting for," Kathleen says. "After losing Danny, I learned not to take any day for granted. The surgery gave me a second chance and reminded me all over again how precious life is."

Kathleen finished in 4:30. "Not very fast, but I felt victorious," she says. In the process, she raised $5,000 for Danny's scholarship fund.

With medical clearance, Drew and Kathleen conceived a third child, Harper, who was born in 2008 without complications. Then, in June 2009, "another kick in the gut" - an angiogram revealed that the coils plugging the aneurysm were collapsing. This time, Kathleen decided to go for a more permanent fix, a craniotomy.

Again she wondered: How many chances will I get? Am I going to survive?

"I had to pretend to be brave because I knew my kids were taking cues from me and I didn't want to upset them," Kathleen says. "So I cried and prayed in a closet."

The surgery took place in September 2009. When Kathleen woke up, she couldn't see right, literally. She had placed an enlarged photograph of her children at the foot of her bed and now she could see only her son and half of her baby girl. Her older daughter, on the right, she couldn't see at all. During the operation, a blood vessel supplying her occipital nerve had crimped, causing partial blindness. It was, says Kathleen, "a bitter pill to swallow."

She could no longer drive. She relied on friends and neighbors to ferry her kids to school, to shop for groceries. Yet Kathleen refused to yield to self-pity.

"I never wondered, Why me?" she says. "Why not me? None of us is immune to life's lumps and bumps."

Her daughter Quinn asked: "Mommy, I keep asking God to fix you. It's not happening. When will you be a normal mom again?"

"My normal has changed," Kathleen says. "I will never be what I was before, so I have to carve out a new normal."

She took the first step last Thanksgiving Day, when she and Drew ran a mile together.

"I cried the whole time because I had lost so much muscle mass and I was so weak," Kathleen recalls. "I was really starting from zero."

Then, the director of the Fargo Marathon, whose mother also had a brain aneurysm, asked her to speak at the pre-race pasta feed the following spring. Kathleen accepted and began training to walk the half-marathon, held in conjunction with the longer race, with her mother.

As weeks passed, Kathleen began feeling stronger. She increased her mileage and her pace. By January, she hatched a new plan: She would try the full marathon.

"I have 26 miles in me," she told herself, "even if I have to walk the whole way."

Over the winter, because of her diminished eyesight and the frigid weather, friends took Kathleen to the gym at 5 a.m. so she could run on a treadmill. When it became warm enough to train outside, her "wing men" ran every step of every run.

With a guide, Kathleen ran the Fargo Marathon in May. The last three miles, the crowd became bigger and louder. "I felt like a rock star." She wept and could barely breathe. As she crossed the finish line and thousands cheered, she could hear her children screaming, "Mommy, Mommy, you made it!"

Kathleen has been training for the Philadelphia Marathon since August.

"I finally feel fully recovered, except for my sight," she says. "My physical strength has caught up to my inner strength. Losing Danny, no question, prepared me for what was to come."


Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.