Jessie Russell had fought through pain and fatigue caused by lupus, which nearly killed her in high school, as she trained for the Boston Marathon. But 14 miles in, she was afraid the sun was going to finish the race for her. Tears started falling.
Then she saw her older brother who had turned out to cheer for her.
“The sun’s kicking the crap out of me,” she said as they embraced. Sunlight can aggravate the symptoms of lupus, and she was sluggish, nauseated, and limping.
Jeffrey Russell didn’t hesitate.
“Let me just get an umbrella,” he said.
As she went to the medical tent, he ran inside a toy store and bought a child’s blue umbrella covered with sharks — their tenacity, he recalled in a phone interview Saturday, reminded them of his sister.
Jessie had made slow progress on the Marathon route, and the two sat in the shade for a bit, watching as officials began to dismantle the course, taking down the medical tent and packing up the metal barriers. A doctor told them it might be smarter not to keep running, because if Jessie needed medical attention, it would not be immediately available along the route.
‘I’m not trying to talk you into it. But if you think it’s just the sun, I’ll be your medical tent. I’ll be your water stop.’
“I’m not trying to talk you into it,” Jeffrey told her. “But if you think it’s just the sun, I’ll be your medical tent. I’ll be your water stop.”
Jessie, now 26, of West Bridgewater, started feeling the first symptoms of lupus in her junior year of high school. She was tired a lot, and often got dizzy or passed out.
But soon she began having joint pain so bad she could not close her fist, then began waking up in the middle of the night feeling violently ill and vomiting. She wound up at Children’s Hospital in Boston in March 2005 with Stage 4 lupus nephritis — her kidneys were in danger of shutting down.
She was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, which causes the immune system to attack healthy cells.
Jessie’s doctors told her to take it easy, and suggested taking time off before college, but she was stubborn. It wasn’t until she graduated from Harvard in 2010 that she decided to slow down and focus on her health.
It was then that she began running half-marathons to raise money for Children’s, the hospital that had saved her life. The full 26.2 was a lifelong dream, and when Jeffrey, 30, had dropped her off for the race Marathon Monday morning, she was nervous and excited.
So was Jeffrey, a former Globe employee. He had planned out a strategy for where to watch the race to maximize Jessie sightings, and had been riding the commuter rail from the eight-mile mark toward the finish line when he saw her walking up a hill in Wellesley. Jumping at an extra chance to scream her name and embarrass her like a good big brother, he got off at the next stop.
But when he met up with Jessie, he saw that she was fading, so he strapped on her fanny pack, got the umbrella, and joined her in his jeans and workboots. He opened the little blue shark umbrella and raised it aloft, shading her sunburned face and shoulders.
And they were off.
“Jessie was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” he said on Saturday, his voice filling with emotion. “The physical pain she was feeling was obvious. She was grimacing . . . She ran the whole thing.”
Jeffrey carried the umbrella over his sister’s head for nearly 12 miles. Newscasts caught the unlikely pair whizzing by in the background, blue umbrella upstretched. At points they had to stop, and Jessie dragged one of her legs for a while. But then, they saw the famous Citgo sign.
“I’m not sure what hill it was when we crested, but we came over it and the Citgo sign was there, and we got a slight breeze,” Jeffrey recalled. “She said, ‘I think I can do it,’ and the sun was touching the tops of the skyscrapers. And I knew she didn’t need me anymore.”
Jeffrey began hanging back behind her, and when her Children’s Hospital Boston running coach joined her less than a mile from the finish, he ran ahead to shout her name and take pictures.
They grinned at each other when she crossed the finish line at 7:16 p.m.
“She had been on the road for seven hours, and it seemed like half the city was still there roaring just for her,” said Jeffrey. “When she came across the finish line, the city of Boston was cheering Jessie and only Jessie.”