My friend, college track and field teammate, and roommate from Boston College died last week.
His name was Derek Michael Hedges. He was only 43 years old and he died of colon cancer. He survived over four hard years from the date of his original diagnosis, fighting tumors, chemotherapy, pain, heartbreak, more tumors, and finally his own mortality.
As hard as he fought, unfortunately, there was no winning this race.
He leaves two young kids – Sam and Sarah – and his wife, Deb, also a B.C. grad. It is a tragedy to say the least. However, what I learned last week at his memorial was that he also left a legacy any of us would be envious of.
Derek and I had a long history that went all the way back to 1987 . We were competitors against each other in high school and finished neck-in-neck in a few races like the Knights of Columbus 4 x mile relay in Providence our junior year and the Brown Invitational at Slater Park in Pawtucket, Rhode Island the fall of our senior year, 1988. He ran for the almighty Xavier High School from Middletown, Connecticut with their intimidating midnight black uniforms with a large ivory X on the chest of their singlets. I believe we finished 11th and 12th in that race, around 15:40 for 5K cross-country, not bad. We realized all this, going through old photos and video tapes when we were in college; neither of us knew we were racing each other at the time. He was tall and skinny like me, except with a preppy, Dutch-boy preppy Connecticut haircut that made him resemble U.S. Olympic miler Jeff Atkinson or a surfer. By the time we got to B.C., the roommates regularly buzzed each other’s hair to save money. It was easier to cut the sides and leave the flop alone or like Derek did to me on one occasion, just buzz it all off.
We were close friends my freshman year at Boston College, kind of immediately clicked as buddies at our summer training camp. Derek ran pretty well (that’s us going head-to-head with Providence in the New England J.V. X-C Champs lead pack) and I ran a little bit better making varsity our freshman year. He injured his knee late that fall and that was the beginning of the end of his running career. He was still part of the team and outside of practice we drank beers, took road trips to The Cape, Portland, Connecticut, his hometown, and slept over in North Attleboro at my parent’s house, had nights out in Providence. He even met and dated one of my high school friends for most of our sophomore year. With Derek, there was always a run to take, road trip to plan, and a party to attend. He loved music and good times with his friends. He loved doing impersonations like of Leor Ardidi, a 7′ foot Israeli who played hoop for B.C. who would come to his room and ask,
“Hey Derek. How do you spell papeer?” in a very thick Israeli accent.
1988-89 was an exciting freshman year for both of us. We had a lot of fun. To close out the year, Brian Murphy and I qualified for the Junior National Track Championships in Fresno, California. Derek flew out to L.A. and drove the ten hours up to Fresno with Pete Hogan to cheer us on. It was great to get that support from him despite my terrible performance in 100 degree heat. As you can see from the photo below, we were a tight bunch of friends.
The B.C. housing lottery came up and Derek asked if I wanted to be his roommate. I accepted. We incurred enough points to get a suite in Edmonds Hall next to another four teammates so our fraternity moved from Upper Campus to a high-rise dorm where more mischief followed us. Derek met with an orthopedic and underwent major knee surgery after indoor track that year. It was not arthroscopic either…it was major knee surgery. His running days were seemingly numbered.
Our junior year, we kind of went our separate ways…no hard feelings. He just had a group of friends he had made off the track team and wanted to live with them the next year. I opted to move in with some friends from my freshman dorm on Crosby Road…but we still met up socially and remained friendly.
Time passed. We graduated. We moved on from The Heights. I went out to Boulder, Colorado; Derek headed out to L.A.. We lost touch. We fell in love. We got married. We had kids. We bought houses. We began professional careers – me: teaching and coaching; him: healthcare.
We met up in 2008 for our 15th college reunion: dinner with our wives and Brian and Kim Murphy at the Depot in Newton. We talked about old times, had a few beers, had a few laughs. It was great to see him.
Couple years later, we met up in Boston for a B.C. football game. We ended up downtown somehow and at the end of the night, he asked if I could give him a lift out in Medway on my way home. We caught up for an hour or so and I’ve been killing myself to remember what we talked about that night. I imagine he shared all his stories of success in healthcare, how he had done so well. I honestly forget and it haunts me a bit. It was really the final time I spoke with him before he was diagnosed with cancer.
A couple years later, I got the news about his cancer. I shot him an e-mail expressing my concern for him and how sorry I was to hear. He sent back a note, something about the “irony” of working in healthcare. The diagnosis was Stage 4 Colon Cancer. I was in disbelief. I had spent most of the winter preparing to race my first Boston Marathon. It seemed Derek was preparing for a much different battle for his life. I later found out he had run eight miles the day before he got the news: he was also training for the 2011 Boston Marathon. I had no idea.
Derek started his treatment. He started blogging. He knew a thing or two about dealing with patient’s care and health plans from his passion, his profession with Athena. He was striving to make medical experience better for people and now he was one of those patients that he had advocated for with his business. I read his blogs. They were informative and personal. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to write a word if I was suffering the way he was. But he kept it up. He also kept working pretty close to the end of his life. He even started a company in the final months with Noah Pusey, a close friend from B.C.. His work had to have affected thousands of people in a positive fashion over the years.
We had had one final team reunion with him in September 2013 when Pete and Bella Hogan were in town from L.A. for B.C. football game. We met up at the Westin downtown, had a few beers, and caught up with Derek, who had been diagnosed two years before. He looked good – healthy, alive – like he could beat cancer from all his experience as a distance running in high school and college. Jokes and old stories were told; there were many laughs. Cancer seemed far away from our conversation and it was just good old Hedges sitting with us. We took a photo and goofed around over beers and more glory days stories.
That was the last time I saw him in person. I gave him a hug goodbye but seeing how healthy he looked that night, I didn’t think he’d ever lose his battle.
He survived over four years. Incredible
We all met up for Derek’s memorial service, out in the woods in Medfield, where he had bought a house a few years before. It was a pristine setting in the woods at an old estate, Connors House, that Boston College now owned. Many of our teammates from the Boston College X-C / Track and Field team were in attendance – Murph, Sacko, Finn, Hogan, Phil – among others. You felt Derek missing from the crowd, telling jokes, making fun of people. It was eerie to not have him there.
It was a two day event. The first afternoon was a “wake” but there was no body there to memorialize only his family and close friends. The next day was a memorial service which was incredibly moving. He had made his name ironically in health care. He was was one of the key players at of Athena Health, which exploded into a high successfully enterprise, founded by Jonathon Bush, George’s nephew. Financially, Derek had realized the American Dream. Health-wise, he’d realized his worst nightmare.
The remembrances took hours to express almost ten people stood up to eulogize him: friends, co-workers, bosses. Murph did a nice job talking about some of our experiences at B.C. and after. Our track team was kind of a fraternity or an army platoon and we had never lost one of our loyal comrads until today.
Today I realized we had lost one of our own.
There wasn’t much mention of Derek’s running career at the service. In fact, the only sign of his days as a successful harrier picture hung up on the various poster boards around room. It pictured him as a Xavier H.S. freshman, running through the trails of maybe Wickham Park, looking young, strong, and determined on an Autumn day. He had confided to me that he had started running again just before he received his final scans that showed the tumors were back. I found this incredible knowing the stress his body had been through.
I guess he ran because he loved it, because it made him feel better, maybe because it made him feel alive again. Isn’t that why we all do it?
As we said goodbye to him last week in Medfield, I couldn’t help but think that he might be somewhere up there, high above of us, enjoying a pain-free effortless run.
Rest in peace, Hedge.