Friday, September 9, 2016

Running Until His Last Breath - An Interview with Brian Simpson

On October 11, 2015, Brian Simpson almost died. On that day, he ran the Steamtown Marathon in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was cold that morning, only 32 degrees.

He had bronchospasms and a lot of mucus at the start and it only got worse as he ran. He was wheezing and short of breath. At 14.5 miles his friend Jill, who was running with him, fell and broke her ankle. Brian should have stopped then too.

He did not.

By the last mile Brian couldn't take a breath deep enough to use his inhaler. He couldn't talk at all and was completely blue in the face. When he crossed the finish line he was immediately taken via wheelchair to the makeshift ICU. His oxygen level was dangerously low; his carbon dioxide level dangerously high.

He was officially in respiratory failure.

His friends sat and watched in terror, but there was nothing they could do. Even though he was the one who was dying, Brian felt worse for them. He didn't care about his own suffering. He just didn't want to watch them suffer.
Brian.... Nebulizing.

He received several IV's, oxygen, and seven Nebulizer treatments. His oxygen level eventually came up some. A few hours later they thought they were transporting him to the ICU in their local hospital.

"Thought" is the key word.

Instead, Brian took off his oxygen and politely said, "no thank you, I have all the meds and oxygen I need in my car. I have a 3.5 hour drive home now."

"Thanks for saving my life!" And with that he left. He missed the next month of work. It was worth it.

Running long distances is hard. Running when you're hurt or weak is really hard. Now imagine running when you know you may not live long enough to see Christmas. Brian Simpson's doctor told him he was going to die at 35. He is now 46.

Brian runs, knowing that any run could literally be his last.

Brian has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). If that sounds bad, it's because it is. On a good day, his lung function is about 12%. If you want to know what that's like, try breathing through a straw all day. And if that's not tough enough, go run for an hour with that same straw.

Brian's been sick all his life. It began as very severe asthma. By his early 20's he had irreversible damage and it progressed to COPD. By his mid twenties it had progressed to stage 4 (the most severe). At this point he began wearing oxygen intermittently, but he still worked full time.

He qualified for complete disability but didn't accept it. At 22, there was no way he could sit back and watch the world go by. "I would rather die than do that," Brian told me. Work was all he had at the time; it was his identity. And today it is running. And clearly he'd rather die than quit that either.

When he was 31 he was placed on Hospice. In case you don't know what that is, they basically prepare you to die. Maybe there's kittens involved, I don't know. The doctor told Brian he had 6 months to live. At most.

Brian grew up in a strongly conservative Southern Baptist family. "I don't care!" You're thinking, "I just want to know how Brian fought off the Grim Reaper!" As if at the climactic moment in the film it flashes back to him playing legos in church. Here's why I mention it.

Brian is gay.

"Oh," you're thinking, "well... maybe his life wasn't totally awful, besides the dying part." It totally was. When Brian was 12 he realized he was gay. And it was disastrous. He prayed to God every day to "fix him." He knew that as long as he was gay, he had no chance at happiness. Not according to the church anyway.

As a Baptist, he was taught what was "good" and "bad". Being gay was an "abomination". He couldn't imagine how God had screwed up on him. Brian explained to me that contrary to what some may believe, being gay is "NOT A CHOICE." I believe him.

Between being sick and being "evil", he no longer wanted to live. He couldn't work. He couldn't do anything. He wanted to die. And, when he was 32, he tried to make it happen.

I'm going to take a moment here to show you a picture of some puppies.

Just take a deep breath.

Between Christmas and New Years, while everyone else was drinking hot cocoa with their families in front of a crackling fire, Brian took an overdose of his respiratory medication. And he waited. About 20 minutes later, his doctor - and friend - called him. Just out of the blue. Just to check up on him. Brian was afraid and panicked. He went to the local ER.

He didn't die.

After that, Brian began to play the oboe again.

It saved his life.

He hadn't played since college. Its double reed provides a great deal of resistance to the lungs: The same kind of resistance those with severe obstructive lung disease do. At first he could only play 3 minutes at a time. Within six months, he was playing 5-6 hours a day. Brian called it "aerobics for my lungs."

He was featured on the CBS Early Show because of it, as well as other news outlets. He was able to return to work.

Brian didn't come out to anyone until he was 30. He didn't tell his mom until he was 35. He wasn't sure how much longer he had to live, and he wanted her to know.

She accepted him. She always had, from day one. She was one of the few people in his life who did. She was a truly amazing woman. "My mother was always my biggest fan," Brian told me.

He asked his mother not to tell his father that he was gay. And she didn't... until Brian was 40. On Christmas of that year, she finally told his dad. Unlike his mom, Brian's dad had never been there for him. And after his dad found out Brian was gay, he didn't allow him to see his mother anymore. He saw her only twice more.

The first time was in the summer. The previous time he'd seen her he had weighed 360lbs. That July, when he saw her, he was 210. And by that point he was training to run his first marathon. She was so happy for him and so proud of him. She cried when she saw all the progress he'd made.

The last time he saw her, he held her as she died in his arms.

You look like you could use another break, reader.

Take your time.

Brian's mother had a terminal condition known as pulmonary hypertension. She was 74 and hadn't wanted to undergo any more treatment.

It was a five hour drive to the hospital near Baltimore. She had been unresponsive for a few hours by the time he arrived at her bedside. As he walked up to her and bent down to kiss her, she opened her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said. And that was the last time she spoke. About 8 hours later, she took her last breath. Brian was very emotional at this point in the interview. I don't blame him. It amazes me that, with all the pain and hardship he has gone through, he keeps on fighting.

After Brian turned 40, he decided that he didn't want to add heart disease to his list of health conditions. So, at 360 pounds, he decided to lose weight. He lost 16 pounds in the first month just by watching what he ate and walking on the treadmill on his lunch break.

He got himself a trainer. After 6 more months he lost another 90 lbs, and he kept on going. Today he is about 190 lbs. Brian is still good friends with that trainer, and saw the trainer and his fiancé when Brian crossed the finish line in Pittsburgh this year.

Brian and his trainer.

Friends are very important to Brian. He has been alone all of his life. I asked Brian about his "dating life". This is how that conversation went:

"Soooo... Dating life," I said, with zero easing-in.

"Ugh.... Well that won't take long," he replied, as if I hadn't just stepped into yet another painful topic. But I kept prying.

"Honestly?" He said.

"Yeah, honestly," I replied, feeling like a badass reporter on a hot scoop.

"I've never really had one," he replied. Dejected, I asked him if he'd at least tried. He told me that he never really liked himself, so how could he expect anyone else to like him?

It got worse from there. And I've depressed you enough, sad reader, without delving into Brian's non-existent love life. He's been used a couple of times, but as he doesn't want to accidentally destroy any lives (yup, that bad), we'll leave it alone.

Brian does have some good friends, however, and they help keep him sane. The one who's been the most constant in his life is Dr. Albie. They've been friends since highschool, where they were both "music dorks".

Brian and Dr. Albie

Regarding Dr. Albie, Brian says that he "gets me". They came out to each other when he was 32. Dr. Albie currently lives in Phoenix with his partner, who is also supportive of Brian. The two have an amazing relationship, and Brian thinks part of the reason he's not willing to settle is because he wants to have what Dr. Albie and his partner share. Brian wants the same kind of relationship.

When Brian was very sick, Dr. Albie ran races with Brian's name on the bib. They ran the Los Angeles marathon together and are doing Las Vegas in November. Dr. Albie even gets some of his students to run with him (he teaches bassoon at ASU).

As uncertain as Brian's future is, at least he knows he won't have to face the end alone. Brian knows that if he needs help when his "time is up," Dr. Albie will be there. I call that a good friend.

I'm discovering the value of friendship myself lately. Much like Brian, I often don't think too highly of myself. Brian finds this hard to believe, and I'm the first to admit how irrational it is to judge myself so harshly. However, having people in your life who care about you keeps you from sinking too deeply into the muck of your own despair. Friends are there to remind you that things aren't so bad and that life is worth living, especially with you in it.

Not everything Brian shared with me was sad or terrible. He told me a story that I found... just... amazing. In a funny way. Not an even-more-terrible way.

Brian's current PR (personal record) in a marathon is 4:51:44. He got this in Pittsburgh in May of this year. He was on target for a 4:35 until.... When Brian told me what happened, he said it so casually that I thought maybe autocorrect messed it up. Either that or he thinks that this is an extremely common thing to happen to people in marathons.

He slipped on a banana peel.

You read that right. He slipped on a banana peel: A real, honest-to-God, banana peel.

He threw his back out and the last six miles were very painful. But he kept on running. I asked him one last time if he really honestly slipped on a banana peel. It just boggled my mind. I couldn't even handle it.

Apparently there were bananas all over the course. It was a flippin' road hazard! A friend of his came up from behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. He turned around and POW.


His friend beat him by 3 minutes. F@#k that banana. Brian was very proud of himself though. Even in all that pain, his slowest mile was 12:43. The year before he ran the same race in 6:08. So he shaved an hour and 17 minutes off his time. That's pretty awesome.

For his previous PR, he ran with his former hospice nurse. They crossed the finish line holding hands up high. Brian's running friends are the constants in his life. They treat him like a runner, not a guy with a terminal disease. They are the only people he sees.

Brian running with his hospice nurse.

His illness scares his friends, but they respect his decision to keep training. They support him, but don't interfere. Brian doesn't see what he does as being inspiring. He considers it more educating.

I see what Brian does as educating and inspiring. Very inspiring. If you can read up to this point and not have an urge to get off the couch and hit the pavement, then you're dead. I mean, what excuse do you and I have?!?!

Brian's friends say he's crazy and that they don't know how he does it. I don't know how he does it either. It's hard enough to go run outside at 4am. But doing it with the threat of your lungs shutting down at any moment....

And he does it anyway.

Doing it anyway

Brian doesn't think what he does is that epic. He doesn't even like himself that much. He tells me that I inspire him. Which is funny, because I think I'm a lazy douchebag.

And that's what I realized over the course of my interview: How much of it I could relate to. I'm not terminally ill. But any time my body isn't performing at 100%, I hate myself.

I often feel alone. Despite the fact that I have friends who are just itching to cheer me up, I feel alone. And much like Brian, it's often because I don't feel that I deserve to be loved. It's as much bullshit in my case as it is in his. And yet there it is.

And much like Brian, I keep running every day... because I'm too scared not to. As scary as it is for him to go running - knowing that run could be the last thing to push his lungs off a cliff - the idea of not running is even more scary. He's picking the challenge, picking the pain that he knows. And I do the same thing. I tackle the difficulty that I know I can tackle. It makes everything else in life seem more bearable by comparison.

Music and the oboe saved Brian's life. Running has made his life worth living. He pushes himself every day. He never wants to take anything for granted.

And I hope that, if nothing else, you take that lesson to heart: Never take anything for granted. Brian's story may be hard to read, but he refuses to give up, despite the extremely $hitty hand that life has dealt him. We all have obstacles and challenges. Brian faces his head on every day. And he will keep doing so until he physically can't anymore.

You and I are blessed. And after speaking with Brian and hearing his story first hand, I can't possible allow myself to squander the gift I've been given. I hope you don't either.

Brian Simpson: A magnificently handsome man

If you wish to contact Brian, you may reach him here:


  1. I know both of you from LUNAR. It's amazing how much an online running group becomes like family. I liked you both before I read this blog, but now knowing more about both of you, I love you! Keep on educating and inspiring, and know that there's more of us that spend too long in the dark and lonely places too!! xxx <3

  2. Loved this!! Great job to you both!! XO ❤️