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A mother's road back

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Staff, 4/4/00

She won't win. She might even walk more than she runs. But when the gun sounds in Hopkinton later this month, Debbie Eappen intends to finish what she starts.

The Boston Marathon was as much a dare as a goal a year ago when, seven months pregnant with her fourth child, she vowed to run the 26 miles this April to raise money for the nonprofit charity she and her husband, Sonny, founded in memory of their son Matty to combat Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Matthew Eappen died in 1997 in his Newton home at only 8 1/2 months old. A Middlesex Superior Court jury convicted his British nanny, Louise Woodward, of second-degree murder in his death, a conviction later reduced to manslaughter by the judge, who freed Woodward to return home to Great Britain.

A contingent of friends and relatives ran under the banner of the Matty Eappen Foundation last spring, but the impending birth of Elisabeth kept Debbie Eappen on the sidelines with then 5-year-old Brendan and 2-year-old Kevin.

"I wasn't entirely disappointed not to be able to run," confesses Debbie, who had long wondered why anyone would run for enjoyment. "I think I was in sixth grade the last time I ran a mile. It helps to have a purpose."

The purpose is the foundation, pledges to which (c/o Matthew McCue, 1 Mill Brook Road, Natick, MA 01760) help support the training of emergency room physicians and the funding of national conferences to raise public awareness of Shaken Baby Syndrome, violence that harms an estimated 1,500 American children a year, half of them fatally.

Debbie's plans to begin running soon after her daughter's birth were derailed when emergency abdominal surgery led to weeks of recuperation and physical therapy. She says she did not begin until November to train in earnest, by which she means she ran a few miles in the morning before the rest of her household stirred.

The gift of a treadmill from Sonny and membership in a community running club upped the ante for a woman who admits to huffing her way through those initial two-mile runs. "I am not an athlete," she says simply. But last weekend she ran 10 miles; her longest run yet has been 17 miles.

"I'm not a runner. I don't need the challenge; I've already had plenty of those. But I'll admit there is something special about running. I used to watch the marathon and think it was beautiful, all the amazing people with their own stories. Blind runners. Wheelchairs. It's a very emotional event to watch. I just could never have imagined myself running in it."

That was before so much else that is unimaginable happened to the Eappen family. Matty would be celebrating his fifth birthday next month had his life not been claimed so violently. Elisabeth is about the age now that Matty was when Louise Woodward killed him. "I see him in Elisabeth's eyes; they look so much alike," Debbie says wistfully. "Running the marathon will raise money for Matty's cause, but it is also a way of coming back out into the world for me. It's Easter weekend with all that symbolizes about renewal and new life."

Yesterday, on an afternoon that held the promise of spring, while her oldest child was at school and her two youngest were down for a nap, Debbie Eappen took up a rake to clear away the debris of a long winter, the broken branches, the decaying leaves. Her brother from Chicago is coming to run. So is a nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital. And the surgical resident who assisted during her operation last summer. And a psychologist who specializes in childhood trauma. All the friends who have come through the long winter with Debbie Eappen and her family.

"Here's my motto," she confides. "From the six-minute delivery to the six-hour marathon, all in one year."

The Boston Marathon is for others to win. Debbie Eappen learned, in a venue much tougher than this one, that sometimes it is victory enough just to endure.

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is

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