On a cold day last February, Jim MacWhinnie—personal fitness trainer and veteran of Ironman triathlons and marathons—put on his running gear and stepped outside with one very simple goal in mind—run, without stopping, for five minutes.
Upon reaching the five-minute mark, MacWhinnie felt strong enough to keep going and when, after glancing at his Garmin navigation device, he realized he had finished the better part of a mile, he set a new goal of finishing that mile.
Thirteen long minutes later, he returned to his parents’ house in Southampton and collapsed in an exhausted but satisfied heap on a chair.
MacWhinnie, 36, finished that milestone run just two months after a freak accident that nearly killed him. While helping his father move a 300-gallon oil tank into the basement of his father’s home, the staircase leading into the basement collapsed and the tank fell directly on MacWhinnie, crushing him in the midsection. EMTs responded to the scene along with fire, police and ambulance crews and MacWhinnie, in critical condition, was rushed to Southampton Hospital after it was determined he would not survive being airlifted to Stony Brook. The injuries MacWhinnie suffered were both severe and extensive—his liver was lacerated, his kidneys were damaged, his heart was bruised and he had internal bleeding. He also had dangerously low blood pressure, the result of losing a massive amount of blood.
Dr. George Keckeisen of Southampton Hospital performed the first of what would be many surgeries, getting MacWhinnie in stable enough condition to be transferred to Stony Brook. By the time he arrived there, MacWhinnie was in critical condition and on a ventilator. The doctors at Southampton Hospital told MacWhinnie’s parents that their son had about a 10 percent chance of survival.
Stony Brook’s Dr. Jared Huston then performed four more surgeries over five days, including a partial right hepatic lobectomy of MacWhinnie’s liver as well as surgeries to repair both the portal vein and a laceration of the right hemidiaphragm. MacWhinnie’s gallbladder was also removed. MacWhinnie was in surgical ICU in critical condition for 10 days, during which time he was in an induced coma. After that, he remained in the ICU for an additional seven days.
MacWhinnie returned home to his parents house on December 27, 17 days removed from the accident, 30 pounds lighter and unable to walk on his own. His road back to competitive triathlete form—a journey which, remarkably, took him less than a year—began with short walks up and down his parents’ hallway with the aid of a walker, progressed to slow, short jogs, like the one he took in February, and, from there, progressed quicker than doctors or anyone else could have predicted. MacWhinnie competed in the Montauk Sprint Triathlon—his first since the accident—in July. He did the Smith Point Triathlon in August and on September 12, MacWhinnie finished 31st among a field of more than 850 competitors in the Mighty Hamptons Triathlon, completing the 1.5K (.93-mile) swim, 23.8-mile bike and 10K (6.2-mile) run in 2:24:16. He also finished third overall in the Flying Point 8K, also in September.
MacWhinnie’s uncommon level of fitness and conditioning enabled him to survive the accident; which he says he remembers in full and vivid detail, up until the point when he arrived at the hospital. But according to those who know him well, MacWhinnie’s focus and determination had just as much to do, if not more, with his amazing recovery than his physical attributes.
Back On His Feet
Sinead Fitzgibbon, a physical therapist at Manual Sports and Physical Therapy in Sag Harbor, worked with MacWhinnie during the first weeks when he was getting back on his feet. Her job was to help MacWhinnie gain the strength and muscle tone necessary to perform simple, everyday tasks. Fitzgibbon, who is a talented competitive cyclist and athlete in her own right, said MacWhinnie was very limited in terms of what he could do when he first came to see her but he progressed rapidly.
“Jim, like many athletes, is a natural overachiever and while this is an asset in later stages of rehab, in the early days it can be a problem,” she said. “I had to constantly rein him in and get him to stick with the program, stopping him from doing too much, reprimanding him gently when he pushed himself beyond where he was supposed to be.”
Despite the need to hold him in check at times, Fitzgibbon said she knew she was not dealing with an ordinary patient.
“Jim responded as a casebook study,” she said. “When the body is fueled well and driven by a passion to recover, the process is pretty straightforward. Jim took this another level though and expedited the normal healing process by willpower, determination and sheer stubbornness.”
With a base level of strength back, MacWhinnie returned to Core Dynamics in Water Mill—where he has worked since 2007—and began working out on his own in earnest. MacWhinnie said he focused more on strength training at first before easing himself back into longer distance running and swimming. Increasing strength in his core was key, he said, since he had built up an immense amount of tightness in the area where all the injuries were located.