Editor’s Note: Kelley Tyan is a health and fitness columnist with ThisWeekinWorcester.com. She is the daughter of Paul “Cooch” O’Mara and the author of this story.

ThisWeekinWorcester.com’s Person of the Week

Most of us have a favorite superhero, but it’s not every day we have one living among us.

Worcester residents may not realize that under Paul “Cooch” O’Mara’s running jacket he wears a virtual “superpower cape” that attacks and destroys despair and disappointment and replaces it with optimism, hope and achievement for the greater good.

Captain Courageous: The Paul O'Mara Story 1

When meeting Cooch, most would assume he’s a healthy man in his sixties who is able to run 8.5 miles every day from his home on Grafton Hill, down to Lake Ave, over the White City bridge onto South Quinsigamond Ave to RT 20 and back to Grafton St.

For more than 45 years, O’Mara has been running the streets of Worcester without the need for any medications. That all changed with one doctor’s appointment last November 2016,  when his shortness of breath was diagnosed as Myelofibrosis — a rare blood Cancer that attacks bone marrow and often leads to leukemia.

Only 18,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Myelofibrosis. Cooch was also informed that his spleen was enlarged, and it was recommended that it be removed. He wasn’t guaranteed more than a few years to live.

O’Mara pursued a second opinion at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston that offered a radically different approach. Rather than move forward with the removal of his spleen, his doctors recommended that he undergo a bone marrow stem cell transplant.

It was a complicated process with no guarantee of recovery and O’Mara was immediately on a stem cell waitlist. His response to his diagnosis and this treatment was a resounding, “Yes, I am going to do what I need to do, and that’s that.”

He wasn’t afraid, he didn’t have any fears and O’Mara said, “Let’s get this over with. I want to move on.”

Captain Courageous: The Paul O'Mara Story 2

Norma, Paul and Kelley

After months of waiting for a stem cell match, O’Mara was admitted to Dana Faber on April 7, 2017 for at least a four week hospital stay. He underwent heavy doses of chemo, became exhausted and weak. His hair fell out and he was extremely sick.

By week three, however, his condition improved while his blood counts increased,  and he was released from the hospital a week early. Cooch never doubted his recovery. His deep faith gave him strength, as did his wife Norma’s reassuring prayer: “Cooch, you are already healed, we don’t need to worry.” He and his close family’s firm faith kept these words in their hearts and kept their outlook positive.

At home, O’Mara was extremely weak and didn’t have an appetite, but his attitude remained extremely optimistic. He could not have public contact with people besides his immediate family, and he was required to wear a medical face mask and gloves at all times if he did leave the house.  His doctors explained that he needed to be isolated for one year and all of his food had to be prepared in his home only by his wife and daughter.  His house also had to be cleaned with bleach daily to avoid any germs.

Captain Courageous: The Paul O'Mara Story 3

Paul and Norma O’Mara

While recovering at home in week two, Norma — Cooch’s wife of 45 years, his best friend, and high school sweetheart — suddenly passed with no warning of an aneurysm. Norma had suffered from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis for over 40 years after giving birth to their only daughter Kelley.

Cooch’s care of Norma over the years included getting her dressed from top to bottom, cooking, and he even did her hair at times!  He took full responsibility of his beautiful wife with a smile everyday.   He drove her to her weekly doctor appointments, which were numerous,  and he loved every minute of it. Now, his life partner was in Heaven as he was being healed, as Norma promised him.  

Of course his heart was completely broken, and still is.  The void and sorrow is agonizing, but he often repeats his favorite biblical verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” [Phil 4:13]

His doctors’ 100 day restriction to not leave his house was lifted by the 85th day due to Cooch’s progression of his recovery.  He was allowed to sit outside any restaurant and eat the food served there, which was a big deal for him and all his family.  

Months later his doctors approved of his return to running and said, “If you feel good, do it”. That’s all he needed to hear and he was back to his favorite route!

Captain Courageous: The Paul O'Mara Story 4

Kelley and Paul

Kelley inquired what went through his mind while running because he never wears a headset or listens to music during his runs. He replied, “I think about your mother every second and that gets me through. I listen to my body, how my breathing sounds, and my muscles feel. I am content running alone and this brings me peace. It always has.”

His many friends and family are beyond amazed with his recovery and daily routine.

On Sunday, Nov. 12,  Cooch will run in the March of Dimes for Babies 5K race. Next June he is already planning to run the Worcester 1/2 marathon again.   Cooch will continue to wear his favorite running jacket and race number, but under his jacket he’ll be wearing his “superhero cape.”

I encourage readers to support the March of Dimes for Babies and, who knows, you just may run into Worcester’s own Caption Courageous!

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