March 13, 2017 | When Nikhil Meena, M.D., crossed the finish line of his first half marathon March 5, his patient, the late Joe Cook, symbolically crossed it with him.
Cook, who died of lung cancer July 2, 2016, had taken up long-distance running about a year earlier after watching several friends enjoy the sport.
“Joe was always an active person and did some running when he was younger, but he didn’t start running half marathons until he was in his 60s,” said his wife, Marilyn Cook.
Cook had recently completed Conway’s Soaring Wings Half Marathon in October 2016 when he started to experience shortness of breath. A diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer soon followed, and he began treatment at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. Meena, an interventional pulmonologist, was a member of Cook’s treatment team.
A 26-year employee of UAMS, Cook embarked on his second career at the academic health sciences center following 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. While at UAMS, he held positions in the College of Nursing, the College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, where he served as administrator at the time of his death.
“When Mr. Cook came to his appointments, our topic of conversation would always turn to his love of running. He was hoping to run in the 2016 Little Rock Half Marathon but had to postpone that due to his cancer diagnosis,” said Meena, assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine.
During one of their visits, Cook asked Meena if he would consider joining him in running the 2017 half marathon. Although he had never attempted long-distance running, Meena accepted Cook’s challenge and promised to run with him in the upcoming race. As his treatment progressed throughout the spring, Cook appeared to show improvement and their race plans progressed. In early summer, however, Cook’s cancer stopped responding to treatment. He was admitted to the ICU at UAMS Medical Center, where he died a short time later.
“Dr. Meena made it a point to visit Joe when he was in the ICU. They had such a good relationship. He tried so hard to help Joe fight the cancer,” said Marilyn Cook.
After Cook’s passing, Meena was determined to live up to his promise. He contacted Little Rock Marathon officials about the possibility of running the half marathon in Cook’s memory. It was decided that he could wear two runners’ bibs, one for himself and one for Cook. He also would receive two medals, one of which he presented to Marilyn Cook at the finish line.
“After they told me I could run the half marathon for Mr. Cook, I started training in December. This may be my first and last half marathon, but I’m happy to honor my promise and earn one last medal for him,” Meena said.