A bit slower, but he's still in the Gasparilla Distance Classic race

"Amputation.''

Through his drug-induced haze, Robert Bocchetti thought he heard surgeons utter the word. He lay still in the emergency room and tried to concentrate.

"Helicopter.''

"Tampa General.''

And there it was again: "Amputation.''

"Oh my God, no,'' Bocchetti thought. "Not my leg.''

A few hours earlier, he had been relaxing in an easy chair at home. Above the TV and throughout the tiny mobile home were framed reminders of his athletic past. As a kid in New Jersey, he had teamed with 99 others to set a Guinness world record for a 100-mile relay. Naval Academy midshipmen broke it six months later, but Bocchetti joked with friends about his 15 minutes of fame.

He had earned dozens of trophies and ribbons for distance running over the years, including at the Senior Olympics in 2001. Running had been his salvation in difficult times, his joy when coaching others or training with his constant companion, Champ, a Brittany so sleek he once competed at the famed Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden.

Now the right leg that had carried Bocchetti so many miles felt dead. He called 911.

It didn't take doctors at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point long to diagnose the problem.

A few months earlier, back in Pemberton, N.J., Champ lay his head on his master's stomach, and his head went up and down.

"My shirt had its own heartbeat,'' Bocchetti said, "but near my waist.''

He had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Doctors crafted a bypass for the weakened vessel. And after three months, he felt strong enough to do what he did every winter: head to the Gulf Breeze RV Park in Hudson on Florida's coast and wait out the winter.

But on Feb. 18, 2011, something went wrong with the bypass, cutting off blood to the right leg. Doctors Nader Chadda and Michael Wahl considered transferring Bocchetti to Tampa for the amputation, but instead worked to save the leg. The surgery took 10 hours as the doctors fixed the bypass and performed a fasciotomy to relieve pressure and restore circulation.

Bocchetti's splayed right calf reminded him of "the illustrated body,'' as he could easily view muscles and ligaments. Every other day for three months, nurses at Bayonet Point cleaned and sealed the wound. Bocchetti endured intense pain but bonded with one particular registered nurse, Lisa Hobbs.

"She wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself,'' he recalled through tears. "She said she had never worked so hard with a patient, and she referred to my leg as her leg, her Mona Lisa. I am so grateful to her and the doctors at Bayonet Point.''

A year later, Bocchetti, 62, has 10-inch scars running vertically up his leg. The danger of blood clots means he must take blood thinners, and he is under strict orders not to run because he might fall and cut himself. This is especially upsetting to Bocchetti this time of year because of his dedication to what he calls the premier running event in Florida — the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

The 35th installment is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday in Tampa. Bocchetti figures he has run in about 30 of them. He fixed pool leaks in New Jersey, which means he didn't have much to do in winters. So he became a snowbird, joining two sisters and a brother in Pasco County. Every February meant one thing to him: Gasparilla.

He has trophies, plaques and ribbons for placing in 5-K and 15-K races in his age category. He also boasts a large collection of Gasparilla T-shirts, including a faded 2001 version that has several small holes burned into the back. He attributes them to powerful chemicals pumped into his body that year to treat a liver disease.

"Even when I was that sick,'' he said, "I didn't miss Gasparilla.''

Despite the recent challenges, he won't miss this year's race, either. He is signed up for a new event on Saturday, the 5-K walk.

He'd rather be running. Still, he is taking the training seriously. Neighbors in the RV park smile and wave at him as he pumps his arms and pushes out his hips in a 3-mile speed walk that is faster than how some people run.

He's proud of that.

He hopes his story will inspire others to not give up.

"I won't be winning any medals again anytime soon,'' he said, "but that's okay. I'm just glad to be here.''

A bit slower, but he's still in the Gasparilla Distance Classic race

02/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 3:25pm]

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