Matt Tullis started running for the same reason most of us do: He wanted to get into shape. But as he added distance, his runs became a meditative experience that allowed him to connect with the ghosts of the people he met during his time in treatment at a children’s cancer ward. “I started thinking about all these people who I knew who didn’t survive,” he says.
In his new memoir Running with Ghosts (The Sager Group, $20.22), Tullis returns to Akron’s Children’s Hospital, where he fought acute lymphoblastic leukemia from 1991 to 1993. The author, who spent years as a journalist for the Columbus Dispatch and whose byline has appeared in Cleveland Magazine, took a reporter’s approach in examining his past by studying nursing flowcharts and medical records from his 70-day stay and his outpatient chemotherapy and radiation sessions. The result is an unflinching memoir with an air of documentary reality and emotional self-reflection.
This month, Tullis will return to Akron’s Children’s Hospital once again — this time as the official race starter of the Akron Marathon Sept. 23. We caught up with the writer and professor of digital journalism at Fairfield University to talk about his new book, venturing into his past and how running changed his perspective.
I don’t think this book would have happened if I didn’t start running. I’ve been writing about having been sick since I was sick, but I was always thinking in the mindset of, “I got sick and then I got better.” When I started running, I became more obsessed with understanding why I still think about this all the time and coming to terms with the idea of why did they die and I survived.
What was it like to examine and report on your life in such great detail?
It was really emotional. The nursing flow charts and medical records detailed everything that was happening in the room. I had memories of my nurse bringing me a sausage biscuit from McDonald’s because it was the only thing I could eat. But I didn’t know when that happened. Then I would read really specific details from her flow charts like, “Patient ate a sausage biscuit at 1:40 a.m.” It was way more emotional than I thought it would be, but it was also really cool to find evidence that these things that I think about actually happened, and it allowed me to understand much more about what I went through as a patient.
Akron Children’s Hospital plays a big role in your book. It’s where your journey begins, during your 70-day stay as a 15 year old, and ends as you finish the marathon with the hospital in view. How important is that place to you?
It’s one of the most important places in my entire life. I don’t have any bad thoughts at all about that place, which is really crazy because it was the worst 70 days of my life. I love going back and talking to the nurses there, and I’ve stayed in contact with the some of them for a long time. I view that place and the people in that place as the reason I’m still alive.