Endurance: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Marathon runners

After waking up from a coma, unable to speak, in the intensive care unit at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), the first thing Dr Kerry Roper-Sakzewski remembers doing is writing on a whiteboard that doctors gave her to communicate – ‘1/2 Ironman, October 25?’.

“I remember the physio just laughed as I laid there connected to life support and what seemed like a thousand tubes,” Dr Roper Sakzewski recalls.

Dr Kerry Roper-Sakzewski

“I’d been hit by a truck three weeks earlier while on a training ride, and had broken nearly every bone in my upper body. There was so much damage to my lungs, no one really thought I was going to live.

“When I started to cry, the physio very compassionately told me to try to take things one day at a time.

"He couldn’t guarantee that I’d walk again, but smiled and said, ‘Who knows, you may prove me wrong!’”

The accident happened in June 2005. Four months later, still wearing a neck brace and bandages, Dr Roper-Sakzewski struggled as she walked 100 meters from her car to go and watch friends compete in a half Ironman.

“But a year later, I walked into my physio’s room at the RBWH and handed him a photo of me crossing the finish line in my own race!” she laughs.

These days Dr Roper-Sakzewski is focused on another kind of marathon; finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease, a progressive degenerative neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to control their movement.

“Current medications only manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s, there’s nothing that actually treats the underlying cause of the condition,” Dr Roper-Sakzewski explains.

“So, part of my work in the Gordon Lab at UQ’s Centre for Clinical Research is looking at how we can repurpose current drugs to fight the inflammatory pathways that are associated with Parkinson’s.

“It’s hoped that by decreasing or stopping those inflammatory pathways, we can slow or halt progression of the disease.

“Another part of my work is focused on finding biological markers so we can detect Parkinson’s earlier.”

When a patient is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it’s thought they’ve probably already had the disease for about 10 years. At present, there is no test that can detect Parkinson’s in its early stages.

“It’s a long road, but as with all research, persistence is key,” Dr Roper-Sakzewski insists.

“I guess I’ve always been a very driven person. I’m someone who, when I set my mind on something, will work very, very hard to achieve it,” she says.

“The challenge with research is that even when I do set a goal and reach it, something else always comes along. You never quite finish. The again, maybe that’s what keeps me going!

“Having been a patient myself, dependent on medical research and staff, has given me a really good understanding of why this work is so important - not just for patients, but their families too.

“My colleagues and I may be striving towards a ‘cure’, but in reality none of us will ever achieve that alone because our work is built on collaboration and shared knowledge,” Dr Roper-Sakzewski explains.

“If I can contribute, even just a small part of the puzzle, then that is really valuable to me, and I thank the Queensland Government and Wesley Medical Research for supporting my research.”

And, while Dr Roper-Sakzewski may be busy with her medical research, she hasn’t given up on racing entirely.

“Since having kids, I don’t really have time for triathlons anymore. Now I’m into long distance running instead, and at the moment I’m training for a 50km marathon,” she says grinning with a smile that wipes away all trace of her accident and difficult time in life.

Hospital room
Dr Kerry Roper-Sakzewski running
Medicine pills
Parkinson's disease

This story is featured in the Winter 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.