Boston Marathon runner Helen van Riel wants to support the medical professionals who kept her “favorite person in the world” alive and healthy.

That’s why the 27-year-old high school biology teacher is participating in this year’s event as a member of the MGH Emergency Response Marathon Team. Helen’s favorite person is her mother, Susan van Riel, who twice received specialized care from the hospital, including emergency room treatment after suffering severe complications from chemotherapy.

“I knew Mass General had a marathon team and I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them,” Helen says. “Mass General made sure my family’s favorite person was well. When I got a spot on the team, I burst into tears. It all came back: all the things Mass General has done to make sure our family is thriving and doing well.”

Susan now lives in Hamilton Parish, Bermuda, with her husband, Boy van Riel, whom she met in Bermuda in the 1980s. They eventually moved to Canton, Mass., where they raised Helen and their other daughter, Grace, before returning to live and work in Bermuda three years ago.

Helen was in middle school in 2002 when Susan needed a double valve replacement to mend a heart murmur that developed after she had rheumatic fever as a child. Helen had heard stories about her mother’s childhood illness, but seeing her stay at the MGH while recuperating from a significant surgery had terrified her and she hoped she could soon forget about hospitals.Susan recovered and the van Riels resumed life.

In 2013, Susan was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Most early-stage CLL patients don’t receive treatment and instead are closely monitored so they can avoid the side effects of chemotherapy and drug therapy. But only six months after the diagnosis, Susan needed chemotherapy.

In June 2013, Susan became seriously ill from complications that included sepsis, which is caused when the immune system is weakened by cancer treatment.

“She needed to be kept away from other patients,” Helen recalls. “There was something wrong with her immune system; you could tell it was complicated. I didn’t know until then there was an acute ICU at Mass General. She needed a high level of help that night, and they had the space to escalate her treatment.”

But Helen knew her mother was in good hands after watching doctors from the ER, ICU, Cardiology and Infectious Diseases divisions work in close harmony to improve Susan’s health. She was also delighted to see Igor Palacios, MD, a cardiologist who had previously treated Susan after her heart surgery, return 11 years later to check her medical charts.

“I was blown away because he wasn’t on her case,” Helen says. “That gave my dad and us peace of mind.”

It’s been three years since Susan was discharged from the MGH after her battles with chemotherapy complications. She is now taking oral chemotherapy with few complications.

Helen didn’t think twice about givingback to the MGH. She says she “can’t put into words” the gratitude she and her family have for the hospital. 

This story is part of a series that MGH Hotline will publish in advance of the 2017 marathon featuring the Pediatric Oncology and Emergency Response Teams. In addition, individuals will run for the Miles for Mass General Program, which raises funds for hospital programs that are close to their hearts – including Botswana Oncology Global Outreach, Caring for a Cure, Cystic Fibrosis, Down Syndrome and the Lurie Center for Autism.



Read more articles from the 02/17/17 Hotline issue.