This story was produced as part of WBUR’s Kind World series.
BOSTON — When one-legged runner Chris Mehmel, of East Sandwich, Mass., was training for the 2012 Boston Marathon, an act of kindness occurred that had him overcome with gratitude.
Mehmel, who has a right leg below-knee prosthesis as a result of a birth defect, was out running up the notorious Heartbreak Hill — an uphill area between the 20- and 21-mile marks of the Boston Marathon route — when he was approached by a man who had caught sight of both his prosthetic leg and his Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary training jersey.
“As often happens on these runs, people pull up along side of me and ask about the leg,” Mehmel said. “This one particular gentlemen was not only asking about the leg but also was asking why I was raising funds for Mass. Eye & Ear.”
Mehmel then told the man about his two children, both of whom were diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that slowly degrades the retinal cells and often leads to blindness later in life. The disease has also left his children with only a 30-degree field of vision.
“If you were to take both your hands and extend your pinky and your thumbs as far apart as they could possibly go, and then put your thumbs together and stick them in front of you at [arms] length, that’s about their field of vision right there,” Mehmel said describing the extent of his children’s visual impairment.
Mehmel explained to the man on Heartbreak Hill that because of his children’s disability, and to highlight the need for more advanced research, he decided to join the Mass. Eye & Ear marathon team.
But that’s not the only reason he’s running the marathon, he said.
As someone with a disability himself, Mehmel wanted to teach his kids the importance of not letting their disability define them.
“It was natural when Mass. Eye & Ear started fielding a marathon team for me to get involved because I could show support both for my kids, but also to make the effort to try to succeed despite having an adverse set of circumstances — in my case it’s having a prosthetic leg,” he said.
Mehmel wanted his kids to know that despite whatever disability they have, they still have to work hard to succeed — and he wanted to lead by example.
“What other people may take for granted, I don’t,” he said, “Leg be damned I’m going to run this marathon, and I did. And I think that made a good impression on my kids — I know it did.”
Mehmel said his story must have moved the man he had met while training, because later that night when Mehmel got home, he received an email from Crowdriser, an online fundraising site on which he had set up a way for people to donate. The email was a notification from the site saying he had just received a $100 donation from a man named “Charlie Gillis.”
“It was a donation from this person [on Heartbreak Hill],” Mehmel said. “He virtually found me, found my fundraising page, and donated a hundred bucks.”
Mehmel was also moved by the experience.
“That just this brief chance encounter, I made enough of an impression on him, and he felt it important enough to get out his credit card and make a donation — that just made me feel really good,” he said.
But Mehmel said it wasn’t about the money, it was about the encouragement.
“I know what it’s like not to be able to walk. I know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, and it sucks,” he said. “So, thank you Charlie Gillis for thinking of me and thinking of my kids and all those who suffer from degenerative retinal disease. I really appreciate it.”
Despite the record temperatures at the 2012 Boston Marathon, Mehmel went on to finish running the race while wearing his prosthetic leg.
Because of a hernia, he is not running this year’s marathon but intends to run next year.