Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Improbable Comeback of Olivia Watt


Photo by Margret Hayes Olivia Watt

Photo by Margret Hayes Olivia Watt

Livvy Watt lay wheezing and gasping for breath on the couch in the living room. She was exhausted and too sick to move. Normally vibrant and eager for each new day, she had lost all control over her life and was too miserable and sick to care. Each breath was a struggle. Livvy had felt these symptoms coming on last May (2017) but had tried to continue her distance running and conditioning, hoping they would go away. Now it had come to this. Everything had changed.

In 2016, Livvy Watt, by any measure, was the star of the Marco Island Academy (MIA) girls cross country team and a rising star in the county and state, known for her long, easy strides and sprints to the finish. Last year, these qualities, as well as superb conditioning, propelled her to a district championship and high finishes at both regionals and state. As 2017 dawned, the future looked bright for Livvy. This would be her best year ever. She resolved to train as she had never done. “My goal was simply to break my own personal best time,” she said. Left unsaid was the thought that good things would happen as a result.

Before the race at the entrance to the course. Photos by Jane Watt

Before the race at the entrance to the course. Photos by Jane Watt

In the spring of 2017, Livvy did well on the MIA track team in distance events, qualifying for the regional tournament at the end of the season. In the district meet, she had placed second in the 1600m, third in the 3200m, And fourth in the 800m. She felt herself growing stronger and more confident of what she could do. When track season ended in early May, Livvy was ready to concentrate on the 5000m (3.11 miles) race, a distance run at the girls cross country meets.

Livvy, in “the chute” at the finish in Tallahassee: In the last few hundred yards, she has passed five runners, to come in 12th and post her best time ever.

Livvy, in “the chute” at the finish in Tallahassee: In the last few hundred yards, she has passed five runners, to come in 12th and post her best time ever.

Throughout the 2016-17 school year, I was able to watch Livvy on almost a daily basis as she worked out at Mackle Park, for the cross country team in the fall and track team in the spring. She ran effortlessly with great, easy, gliding strides, hardly seeming to touch the ground. There was a joy in her running. It made me glad to be alive and on the same field with her. I have told her that this was her time – the time in a hectic academic and student activities schedule in which she appeared to have found real inner peace and purpose. Livvy agreed. And then, she stopped coming to the park for workouts.

The sun rises in Tallahassee, on Livvy’s final 5000m race for MIA: At 7:30 AM, it was the first race of the day, but Livvy’s last for MIA. Livvy is at center among the 199 other contestants from Class 1A. Photo by Jim Watt

The sun rises in Tallahassee, on Livvy’s final 5000m race for MIA: At 7:30 AM, it was the first race of the day, but Livvy’s last for MIA. Livvy is at center among the 199 other contestants from Class 1A. Photo by Jim Watt

When track season ended, Livvy had embarked on a grueling workout and conditioning regimen aimed solely at the fall cross country season. It was a mixture of sprints and longer runs of five to 12 miles – 40 miles a week. Within a few days, she had caught what had appeared to be a cold, followed by a sore throat, bad racking cough, and finally, difficulty in breathing. It came on suddenly. “Within a week, I was a thousand times worse,” she said. In turned out she had had a history of respiratory problems.

Livvy’s fan club after the race. From left: Coach Bruce Kretschmer, Anna Chamberlin, Kyle Ginther, Julia Wagner, Olivia Watt, Camden Jones, Jacob Watt, Asst. Coach and father, Jim Watt and mom, Jane Watt. Photo by Dawn Fernandez

Livvy’s fan club after the race. From left: Coach Bruce Kretschmer, Anna Chamberlin, Kyle Ginther, Julia Wagner, Olivia Watt, Camden Jones, Jacob Watt, Asst. Coach and father, Jim Watt and mom, Jane Watt. Photo by Dawn Fernandez

Olivia had suffered from asthma and respiratory infections since the age of two, recalls Jane Watt, Livvy’s mother and board chair of MIA. “It flared up again, when she started running for the middle school; since that time she has to use her inhaler before every run. She also carries a stronger version in case she needs it during a race.” Jane thought that Livvy was run down from a combination of track season, advanced placement classes, and the intensive daily efforts to maintain her 4.0 GPA. Livvy’s pediatrician agreed, prescribing steam treatments, increased inhaler use and an oral steroid, saying she would feel better in a couple days. Livvy went to school to take a statistics final. Checking at mid-day, Jane found her asleep on the couch. “When she woke up, I realized how sick she was,” said Jane, “The doctor told me to take her immediately to the emergency room.”

In the emergency room, after numerous tests, some disturbing results were found. Livvy’s EKG showed a long QT wave (the interval between heartbeats). A CT scan revealed pleurisy (inflammation of the lung’s outer membrane and fluid build-up in the lung) in one lung. She also tested positive for rhinovirus. Livvy was administered breathing treatments, IV’s and medications. By that evening she was released and deemed ready to go home. Jane Watt was skeptical. “Because [Livvy] was a well-conditioned runner, she appeared better than she was,” Jane said, “but she still felt an incredible weight on her chest. After we got home, she could barely walk from the couch to the bedroom and had no energy at all.”

The next day, Livvy’s pediatrician recommended a pulmonary specialist in the Miami area. Making what she considered to be an emergency appointment, Jane took Livvy over the following day. The doctor diagnosed mycoplasma pneumonia, also known as walking pneumonia. He put her on an antibiotic, switched to another inhaler, and said Livvy would improve within a couple days. “But she didn’t,” Jane said, “Instead she continued to decline.” It got so bad that Jane barely left Livvy’s side. It seemed that nothing and nobody could arrest these insidious infections. Jane watched helplessly as Livvy got sicker and weaker. For the third time, a medical professional had predicted a speedy recovery, but things just kept getting worse.

As board chair at MIA, Jane Watt has a lot of responsibilities. She had laid many of them aside, while she ministered to Livvy. One that she couldn’t miss was the graduation ceremony for the class of 2017. On May 26, Jane found herself onstage seated next to the keynote speaker, who turned out to be a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. He recommended that she get Livvy there as soon as possible. The next day, she and Livvy were on a flight to Rochester, Minnesota. They kept her there for over a week. “We were not at all sure that Livvy would ever run again,” Jane said. She is not given to hyperbole.

While there, Livvy saw a cardiologist and a pulmonary specialist, who administered three days of tests, after which they switched her inhaler, increased the dose, and put her on a stronger antibiotic. “Slowly and surely, she began to improve,” Jane said, “After a week, we flew home.” This time, instead of getting worse, Livvy was getting better. But it was to be at least a month before she could resume running, which she did in early July. I have learned that it takes 18 days of inactivity before muscles start to atrophy. Livvy had been on her back for two months. She would have to start from scratch. It wasn’t until mid-August that she felt her strength returning.

While Livvy did well during the regular season, it wasn’t until the district championships that she felt pretty much like her old self. Up to that point, she had been winning and placing in races, but her goal of beating her last and best time, set the year before, had eluded her. She wanted it badly. She was using her inhaler before every run and carrying a stronger one with her during races just in case. Finally, and at the last possible moment, Livvy went out in a blaze of glory.

After finishing first at the district meet and qualifying for states at the regionals, Livvy broke the only record she cared about – her own. On November 11, at the state championships in Tallahassee, in the final stretch with her father running besides her hollering, “How bad do you want this? How bad do you want this?” Livvy Watt reached down, way down, and in the final few hundred yards went from 18th to 12th place, beating last year’s 20th place finish. Best of all, she posted her best time ever – 19.43 – beating last year’s record by two seconds.

There are no more cross country races for Livvy to run at MIA. Time has run out for her. It is intriguing to imagine what she could have done, if a debilitating illness had not intervened.

2 responses to “The Improbable Comeback of Olivia Watt”

  1. Kathleen Reynolds says:

    Outstanding young woman who has demonstrated “true grit” while excelling academically and in her civic and social commitments. In her future successes she will make us all Marco proud!

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