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From Near Death to Thriving: A Case History of Hope

Strangled and left for dead, Gruson now has multiple world records.

Key points

  • At age 26, Kerry Gruson interviewed a former Green Beret who attacked her, leaving her with quadriplegia.
  • Gruson and elite runner Caryn Lubetsky cochair Thumbs Up International to help change attitudes about life's possibilities.
  • Gruson follows the motto, "step by step, together we can," hoping people emerge stronger, kinder, and wiser.

I recently attended a Harvard Medical School webinar on finding meaning and purpose in the COVID-19 era. The hosts challenged us to explore thought-provoking questions, such as: What really matters? Who depends on us? Who do we depend on? What is our purpose?

Eva Ritvo, MD
Eva Ritvo, MD and Kerry Gruson
Source: Eva Ritvo, MD

As I reflected on my replies, my thoughts landed on a dear friend, Kerry Gruson. Kerry is someone who’s truly found her purpose through the obstacles she faces and through a life of rigor, focus, and zest. When we emerge from the trials of the pandemic, we too will have an opportunity to rebuild. Perhaps we can all learn from Kerry.

If we incorporate her message to “look beyond perceived limitations” and follow her motto, “Step by step, together we can,” we can all emerge stronger, kinder, and wiser.

Let me back up a bit.

Kerry was raised mainly in Europe by two prominent journalist parents. Her family moved around three continents while her father’s career advanced. During her childhood, Kerry stood out both academically and athletically. She was an avid reader in three languages and loved to ski, ride horses, and fence. Kerry developed a savvy set of social skills as she consistently found herself uprooted and searching for new friends. As Kerry has said, “The frequent changes allowed me to develop a kaleidoscopic vision of life with the mental flexibility to see it from a variety of perspectives.”

Kerry Gruson, used with permission
Kerry with her mother Flora Lewis and father Sydney Gruson circa 1950
Source: Kerry Gruson, used with permission

As the offspring of journalists, she was comfortable asking questions and living with uncertainty. Kerry developed an understanding that reality is different for everyone. She also learned that humility—listening to others with an open mind and heart—is essential for our continued coexistence.

Kerry came to the U.S. at age 17 to attend Harvard College. She majored in International Affairs and worked as a journalist after graduating. Her first reporting job was in North Carolina, then in Boston, at the Boston Herald. From there, a bent towards activism led her to the alternative press.

Kerry flourished in her early adulthood with her bright and beautiful blue eyes, unparalleled experiences, and top-notch education.

At age 26, on her way to report the end of the Vietnam War, Kerry interviewed a former Green Beret in Hawaii. As they talked, he had a flashback triggered by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He mistook Kerry for a Viet Cong fighter and strangled her. He left her for dead in her hotel room. She survived due to the stubbornness she always maintained and stumbled to the street.

A police officer saw her and mistakenly thought she was on drugs. She was taken to the hospital and spent several months convalescing. The incident has left her with Post-Traumatic Parkinson’s Syndrome, effectively a quadriplegic. Her neck has a permanent rightwards crick, and her voice barely rises above a stifled whisper.

Kerry refuses to be angry at the man who, in that one moment, completely changed the circumstances of her life. She said she sees them both as victims of war. She feels that anger towards him drains the energy she needs to survive and be productive. When I asked Kerry what’s become of him, she said she doesn’t know. My question reignited her long-standing curiosity, and together we are taking steps to find out more about him. Kerry envisions a conversation where they both try to bridge their divide. Kerry feels that how to cope with such scars has particular relevance now, as we attempt to deal with the consequences of our long involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Kerry's own path to recovery has been long and arduous. Yet, she’s determined never to allow herself to be defined by disability. In fact, her lust for life, desire to take on challenges, and spirit for adventure have only intensified.

It wasn’t until Kerry immersed herself in the world of sports that she discovered her true purpose. In the late 1980s, Kerry began to sail and raced at world-class regattas. She took up scuba diving. She turned to endurance sports in 2014, finding a new passion when friend and teammate Cristina Ramirez invited Kerry to her first triathlon. Together, they co-founded the nonprofit ThumbsUp International, which Kerry co-chairs with the elite ultra-runner athlete Caryn Lubetsky. They manage it with a diverse and growing group of volunteers of all capabilities and ages — with a focus on youth, where true change begins.

Kerry Gruson, used with permission
2018 Miami, FL. Superintendent’s Challenge 5K Race for Education
Source: Kerry Gruson, used with permission

Through their Race2Educate initiatives, ThumbsUp participants make presentations from elementary schools to colleges. The goal is to expand and change attitudes about life’s possibilities by forming teams of athletes of differing capabilities and ages to compete in athletic events together. Education is at the core of the organization’s every activity. And the same message applies to everyone: Look beyond perceived limitations.

When I asked Kerry why sports, she replied,

I dabbled in sports as a youth for fun and exercise. After the injury, I happened to wander back into that world. But, as I always say, there are no coincidences. Sports have transformative power. They serve to inspire us to dig deeper, reach higher, and, thus, exceed all expectations, including (and especially) those we self-impose. Seeking to question conventional attitudes towards all limitations, I instinctively knew I’d found my destined preoccupation. Or, perhaps, destiny had found me?

Of course, Kerry can’t sail, dive, swim, paddle, pedal, or run independently. She does it all with the help of other athletes. In fact, she’s completely dependent on other people for everything, from getting a glass of water to eating, dressing, or participating in any activity.

Instead of producing feelings of defeat or confinement, the restrictions become a victory and a form of freedom, a way of life with a mission for Kerry and her teammates. The lesson is that the ability to receive is a powerful gift. Without a recipient, there can be no giving. So, needing and asking for help does not imply weakness but instead strength. Receiving with grace is as crucial and honorable as giving and as natural as breathing in and breathing out.

Psychologist Brené Brown says that only our vulnerability allows for deep connection, and ThumbsUp International manifests this principle.

Kerry said she’s a “terminal optimist” because she has no other choice. Her enthusiasm is contagious. The ThumbsUp mantra is “Step by step, together we can.” Kerry came up with these words during one of her troubled nights. She awoke, deciding to turn a negative into a positive—her regular operating mode. ThumbsUp is her signature gesture. The name reflects her positive (thumbs up!) attitude and the organization’s intent to take its message worldwide.

 Kerry Gruson, used with permission
Caryn Lubetsky and Kerry Gruson leading the U.S. delegation in the 2019 NYC Marathon Parade
Source: Kerry Gruson, used with permission

Caryn and Kerry are the world’s most experienced and accomplished female endurance duo racing team. They have earned two Guinness Book of World Records: Fastest female duo team in a marathon (the 2019 NYC Marathon—3 hours 54 minutes and 47 seconds) and the most long-distance triathlons of a female hauling a person (4 in 8 days).

Kerry and various teammates have received over 100 awards for swimming, biking, running, and triathlons. They’ve completed two separate Ironman triathlons and countless shorter events.

Kerry and Creative Mountain Studio, her filmmaking crew have garnered 6 Emmys and 14 film festival awards for three documentaries chronicling ThumbsUp: May I Help You?, TOGETHER WE CAN, and eli — Educate * Love * Inspire. The documentaries also form part of the Race2Educate school presentations.

Kerry Gruson, used with permission
"Together We Can" documentary
Source: Kerry Gruson, used with permission

Our mutual friend Deb Lewin once said, “Kerry is a spiritual being having a human experience.” This comment stuck with me. Kerry is indeed an inspiration to so many, and she has much to teach us. Yet she never does it by telling you anything. Her comments serve to push you to see things in a different light. In effect, we have an opportunity to enter her kaleidoscopic view of the world. The time you spend with Kerry is joyful and transformative.

So what’s up next for ThumbsUp? Kerry and Caryn have registered for a third Guinness World Book Record—a duo nonstop 12-hour run. Their dream is to address world peace by entering the Great Wall of China Marathon in the next few years. The Great Wall is composed of 5,164 steps, and Kerry can’t take even one. Yet, she hopes to go there with her team to break more barriers.

We are two cultures and two worlds that need to come together. By taking on these steps, we are demonstrating to the world that collaboration is both possible and necessary for our continued coexistence.

The COVID-19 crisis has proven the urgency in the message. We are all part of humankind. The fate of one of us impacts the fate of all of us. In collaboration, we find our salvation, strength, purpose, and our hope for a better future. In short, our purpose.

To learn more about ThumbsUp International, visit www.thumbsupintl.org

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