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Taking the Plunge

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Karen Boyle
Viki Anders on her wedding day at the 2002 Plunge for Patients.

The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim isn’t for the meek. But for Viki Anders, the 28.5-mile odyssey was especially brutal. Floundering to the finish line 9 hours and 21 minutes after the race began, the then 45-year-old emerged dehydrated and hypothermic. It took two men to haul Anders out of the water.

With her 1995 near-death effort, Anders, a bone marrow transplant nurse practitioner, raised $8,000, half for the marathon and half for her chosen charity, Hopkins’ Patient and Family Fund. But having seen firsthand how the fund helps patients struggling with lost income and mounting lodging bills (a bone marrow transplant requires staying near Hopkins for at least 100 days), Anders wished every single dollar she’d raised would benefit her patients. She decided that the best way boost the coffers was to launch a swimming fund-raiser of her own.

The following year, Anders’ “Plunge For Patients” made its debut in Wildwood, N.J., where she had spent childhood summers. It drew about 50 people for the 3-mile swim and barely broke even. Eleven years later, the event, held at the same venue, now includes a 1-mile swim and 5- and 10-kilometer beach runs. It plays host to more than 250 patients and families and as many as 500 athletes. To date, it’s raised more than $170,000 for the fund.

It’s also turned total strangers into dear friends.

Each year, family members who’ve lost loved ones submit a short story about their experience. Each athlete is handed an essay, and the patient’s name is written on the participant’s arm. The families meet at the finish line. Capping the day are a ceremony, beach party and dinner.

“It’s really beautiful,” says Anders, who still swims about 10 to 15 miles a week. “Patients meet other patients, and families quickly bond.” Many have developed close friendships—even romances. Anders should know. This summer marks her fifth wedding anniversary to a volunteer she met at the event. Their wedding took place at the 2002 Plunge.

At this year’s June 23rd Plunge, Anders and her husband renewed their vows as another Plunge couple married. The groom, one of Anders’ former patients, came to Johns Hopkins when he was 15 for treatment of graft versus host disease, a complication of the bone marrow transplant he received in Canada several years earlier.

Milestones like these keep Anders from getting depressed about other patients who don’t fare as well. It’s not always easy, she admits. “But knowing that another Plunge is coming up keeps me going every year.”

—Judy Minkove

 

 

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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