September 21, 2016
“Friends and family are always asking what they can do to help, and this is a great way. I want people to know how important this House is.”
Allan Marsh, from Geary, N.B., is training for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon to raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Toronto, where he’s been staying for the past two months. A father of eight with five grandchildren, he’s running in tribute to his 15-year-old daughter, Astena.
Born with congenital heart issues, Astena had a heart transplant at three years old. The transplant was successful, allowing her to grow into an active, energetic young woman. She ran track and played basketball, volleyball and soccer. In 2014, she won five gold medals at the Transplant Games.
Imagine her family’s shock, then, when Astena’s health took a serious and rapid decline this past July. Though transplants generally remain viable for 10 to 15 years, Allan couldn’t have prepared himself for the speed at which his daughter went from playing sports to laying in a hospital bed on life support.
“All parents of sick children know not to take a single day for granted,” says Allan. “They never send their child off to school without telling them ‘I love you.’ Every day you prepare for the worst and are grateful at the end of the day when it hasn’t happened. But now it has.”
Astena was flown to SickKids in Toronto on July 11. When she arrived, there was hope that she would be a candidate for a second heart transplant. In the time since, Astena’s kidneys have shut down, her aorta has ruptured, and she will likely have to have her leg amputated. She is no longer considered eligible for a transplant.
Allan has spent every day by Astena’s hospital bed, holding her hand and hoping for the best. He’s been staying at RMHC Toronto, where he has found needed support.
“There’s a lot of heartache in this building, but the staff and volunteers try to make life as normal as possible,” says Allan. “It’s the little things, like fresh-baked cookies at the reception desk, that make you feel at home when you’re not.”
Allan is grateful that staying at the House has made visiting Astena much more affordable for his other children and relatives, all of whom live far from Toronto. His network of support has also grown to include many of the families he’s met during his stay here.
“Everyone at the House gets it. I’ve made friends with people who have lost their babies while I’ve been staying here. That’s a journey we might be on ourselves someday, and being here is an opportunity to share that shoulder.”
As a way to express his gratitude to his “home away from home,” Allan has registered for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct. 16 and hopes to raise $1,000 for RMHC Toronto.
Running the five kilometre race will be another milestone on a fitness journey Allan started in 2015.
“Heart health is obviously very important to Astena and I was quite overweight. One day she said to me, ‘You’re all I’ve got, Dad, and I want you to be around for a long time.’ As a single father, that hit home. So from that point onward, she would wake me up every morning at 5:45 and kick me off to the gym on her way to school.”
A retired military NCM, Allan noticed the pounds start to fall off right away. Originally 320 pounds, he has lost more than 110 pounds since January 2015. He has turned his focus to strength training and is planning to compete in a bodybuilding competition this fall. Here in Toronto, he alternates between Astena’s hospital room and the fitness centre at RMHC Toronto four to five times a day.
“Working out is my stress reliever,” he says. “I’ve been telling other parents that during my time here, and now, there are other moms and dads who are starting to use the gym.”
Even though she’s unable to talk while on a ventilator, Astena is still her dad’s strongest motivator.
“She’ll push my stomach, shake her head and text, ‘Still too soft.’ The nurses think it’s hilarious.”
Astena is excited that her dad is running in the Scotiabank Marathon, giving him two thumbs up when he told her. When race day comes and Allan attempts to run his race in under 30 minutes, his “baby” will be in his thoughts, as she always is.
“I’ll be thinking about Astena and how much she loves to run, and how she probably never will again. I’ll be trying to sweat hard enough that no one knows I’m crying.”
Join Allan on Team RMHC Toronto. Register now for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
To help Allan reach his fundraising goal, visit his fundraising page.