By Yishane Lee
Last year, Dave Fortier ran the Boston Marathon in honor of a friend who has leukemia. He experienced up close the two bomb blasts that forever altered the event, becoming one of the nearly 300 people who were injured. A piece of shrapnel became embedded in his right foot, and the immediate ringing in the ears he experienced is now permanent.
Fortier’s foot healed quickly and he was able to race the New York City Marathon seven months later, again to raise funds for leukemia research. But while supporting his friend will always be a priority, Fortier now has a personal interest in promoting the search for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus. “On long runs I think about things I want to do, and after finishing Boston again this year, my first thought has been to take care of my hearing,” says Fortier, who lives in Newburyport, Mass. “I’m very happy to be supporting Hearing Health Foundation and the search for a cure.”
Fortier, 49, and members of a Boston Marathon survivors support group are running the New Hampshire Reach the Beach Relay in September. The race spans 200 miles and 24 hours, with each member of a 12-person team taking separate legs—including during the middle of the night—totaling nearly 17 miles each.
“Before this year’s Boston Marathon, everybody in this survivor community felt a lot of unity. We had 28 people running the race, and many were first-time marathoners like Chris Campbell,” Fortier says. “I could really see we all felt a sense of belonging, and one of my biggest fears was that after the finish line this feeling would end for all of us. So we quietly went online and registered for Reach the Beach, and when someone asked, ‘Gosh, what do we do next?’ we had an answer—I said, ‘Well guys, we’ve got something for you, if you’re interested—I signed us all up for this race.’”
Fortier says they easily filled one 12-person team, and the personal investment in finding a cure affects several who are running.
“If you see the videos and photos of when the first explosion happens, I’m the guy with a black hat and black shorts who is right behind the gentleman who falls,” he says. “I’m reaching up and holding the side of my head. The sound—it felt like someone hit me with a brick. I actually thought someone behind me had cuffed my ear with a fist. I just remember that pain. The ringing happened instantaneously.”
He adds, “The ringing today is as loud as it was that day. I’ve learned to suppress it a little bit, but when I start talking about it and thinking about it, I can hear it. It’s ever present.”
Although his hearing loss in his left ear, which was facing the first blast, is so far mild, Fortier has been taking steps to compensate. “Now I tell people when I’m first meeting them that I will be leaning toward them to hear better, so they don’t think I’m getting in their personal space for no reason. I’ve also learned to look at the speaker’s lips for clues,” he says.
At night, Fortier uses a combination of white noise and low-volume talk radio to tamp down the tinnitus. “But I’m lucky if I get three solid hours a night. If something wakes me up—like the dog needing to go out at 3:30 a.m.—well, then, I’m up for the day.”
“My injuries were so minor compared with everyone else, but while the stitches in my foot are long gone, for me hearing is the bigger issue for sure,” he says. Fortier is excited and encouraged by the progress of the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), including the groundbreaking regeneration of inner ear hair cells in adult mice by Albert Edge, Ph.D., an HRP consortium member at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School.
Unlike other species, such as birds and fish, mammals lose their hearing permanently once inner ear hair cells are damaged by, for instance, a sudden loud noise. The HRP’s goal is to translate the ability of birds and fish to naturally regenerate hair cells to mammals, including humans.