Gretchen McKay

Triathlete overcomes traumatic brain injury to race again

Megan Kruth still doesn’t know what sent her flying over her bike’s handlebars on Aug. 4, 2013.

The Ironman triathlete and 17-time All-American collegiate swimmer had done training rides on that stretch of Babcock Boulevard near her McCandless townhouse hundreds of times. But that Sunday morning, she probably hit a bump in the pavement. When her helmet struck the pavement, it split open like a too-ripe watermelon. The impact fractured her skull, ribs and collarbone.

By the time her ambulance pulled into Allegheny General Hospital, she was in a coma. Doctors weren’t sure she’d survive the surgery to remove a bone flap from the skull to expose the brain and relieve building pressure.

But neurosurgeon Khalid Aziz says that the then-41-year-old had several things working in her favor: the quickness with which the paramedics got her to the hospital, her youth and her extremely good health.

“But I also believe it was her spirit,” he says. “You could just see she wanted to get better.”

Ms. Kruth would have to re-learn how to swallow, talk and walk in the months of difficult rehab that followed. But no one doubted she’d fight her way back, says her younger sister Erin Kruth of Dallas. “There has never been anything that Meg didn’t do because it was too hard.”

Megan Kruth lived with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler, for a year after her bike accident in Aug. 2013. (Megan Kruth)

With the support of many doctors and nurses, family and the triathlete community, “Iron Meg” has been able to return to not just swimming, but also competing. On Saturday, she’ll participate in Race for the Conch Eco-Seaswim, a 2.4-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean at the Turks and Caicos. This would be on the 1,427th day since her accident.

The 44-year-old long-time second-grade teacher at Pine-Richland’s Hance Elementary is using it as an opportunity to help others who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, as afundraiser for Allegheny Health Network Neuroscience Institute.

She says, “Goal-setting has brought me back to what I love.”

Slow and steady

After her initial surgery, Ms. Kruth wound up needing four more cranial surgeries over the next year, including one to place a customized synthetic implant in her head after the first bone flap became infected. (“But I can go through scanners with no problems!” she quips.) Her broken collarbone, repaired with a titanium plate, required another major operation.

While she hated the white protective helmet she wore for months to keep from reinjuring her brain, she slowly got better. After 17 days in the hospital, she spent less than two weeks doing inpatient rehab at UPMC Mercy Hospital’s Center for Brain Injury before going home to live with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler.  By fall she was jogging short distances; by Thanksgiving, her daily routine included spinning on an indoor trainer bike while FaceTiming with her sister Marcia in Florida.

Ms. Kruth, though, couldn’t always see that she was making progress. Plagued by short-term memory loss that sometimes left her struggling for words, she often felt frustrated or angry. Multitasking proved impossible. And she didn’t like being dependent.

“Doctors told us this will be a journey, not a sprint, and you’ll need lots of patience,” says her father, noting how just one wrong word could set her off into a rage.

There also were setbacks during the year she spent recuperating in her parents’ home. One of the scariest was a seizure during a Sunday walk at Hartwood Acres not long after she got out of rehab. Seizures occur in one of every 10 people who have a TBI that required hospitalization, so it wasn’t completely  unexpected. But as her sister Erin noted in a post on the CaringBridge website, it was a reminder that healing is a process, “even when you think you’re in the clear.”  Ms. Kruth would have three more seizures over the following spring.

Her family encouraged her with Ironman analogies: “Sometimes in training you get an injury and have to step back and rest a bit, Erin would tell her. “But you always get to the finish.”

“Yes, I went through a lot of extreme emotions,” admits Ms. Kruth, who still works with a neuropsychologist to develop strategies for coping. “But there also was a part of me that said, ‘OK, I’m going to fight for this, whatever it is.’ ”

One big milestone was getting her driver’s license back in September 2014 . That’s also when her plastic surgeon, Michael White, allowed her to start swimming again with friends, albeit very slowly and not for long distances.

After a false start in January 2015, she was back in the classroom the following fall, by which time she’d also achieved another milestone — moving back into her townhouse. Her students’ parents, she says, “were wonderful.”

All the while she was swimming. She now practices five mornings a week before school, with the Cranberry Wave masters swim team at the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry.

It was team member Mary Anne Savage of Cranberry who first planted the idea of the Turks and Caicos race in her head last winter. Ms. Kruth decided it’d be a good vacation for her, too. She was ready.

Megan Kruth poses with fellow swimmers at Crawford Pool in Shaler on Labor Day weekend in 2014. It was her first swim after her bike accident in 2013. (Megan Kruth)

Because Ms. Kruth is such a fast, amazing swimmer, Ms. Savage expects to come in well behind her.

Training with her, Ms. Savage says, has been an awesome experience for the entire team. Not only does Ms. Kruth have a ready smile at 5:30 a.m., “but we all can learn from her experiences how to face things head on.

“Just the way she approaches each challenge is so inspirational.”

For her part, Ms. Kruth — who in 2015 was featured in acommercial for Allegheny Health Network —  says she’s just happy to be back in the water, competing, and to be able to give back to the community that gave her so much during the healing process.

Before her accident, summers were always about her. This year, it’s about the fundraising and she’s also volunteering at Mercy in the brain injury unit.

“It readjusted my perspective,” she says. “It brought me back to earth.”

She’ll never be the old Meg, says her father. But that’s OK. So many brain injury patients give up. His daughter never lost hope.

“Your life just starts over,” he says. “You appreciate where you’ve come from and all the new life experiences.”

Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza most of his adult life. And not just your average slice, but the lightly charred Neapolitan-style pies crafted from a slow-rising dough and baked in a 950-degree brick oven at his Il Pizzaiolo restaurants.

It started when he was about 19 and visiting friends in New York. College wasn’t a great fit for the Whitehall native. But pizza? That was something a young man of Italian heritage could put his heart and soul into.

During that sojourn, he put the city’s reputation for great pizza to the test by eating as many imaginable styles of pizza as possible. When he hit Patsy’s Pizza in Brooklyn, something clicked.

He’d read about the shop’s signature thin-crust pizza months before in an in-flight magazine but had forgotten about it. But with one bite of Patsy’s classic pizza margherita, he discovered his destiny.

Made the Italian way in a coal-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sprigs of basil, it was nothing short of heaven. Mr. Molinaro just knew he had to bring the concept back to Pittsburgh.

Over the next several years, he read everything he could find on pizza and pizza-making, and also he picked the brains of expert pizza makers from across the country. In 1994, he and his father, Ron Sr., built a brick oven in his parents’ backyard in Whitehall. There, next to the swimming pool, he practiced, pie after crispy pie. 

It would be two years before he felt he was good enough to open Il Pizzaiolo (translates to pizza maker in Italian) in Mt. Lebanon in  September 1996.  It’d be a family affair, with his dad becoming the manager after he retired from the postal service in 1997.

In a city accustomed to the thicker crust Pittsburgh-style pies served at Mineo’s, Aiello’s and Fiori’s, there were plenty of naysayers. But Mr. Molinaro knew he was setting a new bar with the neo-Neapolitan pies he made with high-quality ingredients imported from Italy. Plus, he had optimism of youth: He was just 25 when Il Pizzaiolo opened with its giant brick oven crafted in Delaware.

“I never thought for one second I’d fail,” says Mr. Molinaro, now 46.

He wouldn’t really hit his stride until six months later, after a  trip to Naples, Italy. “It changed my focus to  true Neapolitan pizza,” he says. That’s also when he added his signature pastas to the menu, drawing inspiration from foods his grandmother, mother and aunts made when he was growing up. His mother, Mazie, made the desserts.

From the get go, he says, there were lines out the door. It’s only grown in popularity, with Mr. Molinaro opening three more locations over the decades, along with the “fast-casual” Pizzuvio off Market Square.

“The quality and authenticity speaks for itself,” he says.

Easy to shape because the flour used to make it has less gluten, a Neapolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot — about 90 seconds in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven. But it’s the toppings, says Mr. Molinaro, that truly make the pies special. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday, and he uses canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s famed San Marzano region. The dry faella pasta, artisanally produced in a town just south of Naples, also is imported, and basil arrives still on the stem, ready to be picked.

Gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, conversely, are made every day in house by hand.

The key, he says, is simplicity. “You have to let the ingredients do their thing.”

He’s also a stickler to authenticity. In 2006, he knocked down the original brick oven in Mt. Lebanon so two guys from Naples could build him a new one over the course of a week. And he’s never stopped trying to make his pizzas and pastas better.

“I’m still perfecting it,” he says, sometimes working with his 10-year-old son, Roman, by his side. “I go to sleep reading ragu recipes, and wake up thinking about pizza. It’s not a casual thing. I eat, sleep and breathe it.”

Pittsburgh’s meister of artisan bread

Nick Ambeliotis never doubted his life’s work would revolve around food.

The Ohio native grew up working for his father, Mike, in the corner grocery store he started after World War II in Warren, near the Pennsylvania border. After graduating with an accounting degree from John Carroll University in 1982, he helped turn the store into the upscale Woodland Market and eventually ended up running it. By 1992, however, he’d grown restless and wanted to try something new.

He took a job with Euro USA, a leading importer and distributor of European cheeses, olive oils and charcuterie. For the next nine years, he traveled the world in pursuit of olives in Greece, spices in Turkey and elusive white truffles in Alba. But that, too, eventually grew old. After a “life experience” that led him back to his Greek Orthodox faith, he took stock.

“I wanted to work with my hands and be spiritual,” he says.

A voice inside told him maybe he should be baking bread and helping people. “Everyone needs to be accountable, or you’re walking aimlessly through life,” he says.

But he knew nothing about baking. So for the next 18 months, Mr. Ambeliotis visited the best bread bakers all over the world, taking it all in one loaf at a time. In 2001, he formed Mediterra Bakehouse. A year later, he started baking in an industrial park in Robinson with a natural yeast starter, called a levian, gleaned from a bakery in Paris. He had just a few employees, 10 varieties of bread and a handful of customers.

Friends, he says, told him he was crazy. Pittsburgh already had a great bread tradition.

But Mediterra would do it a little differently, with small-mill organic ingredients, slow fermentation, overnight proofing and hearth baking in the French tradition in a custom-built steam-injected oven from France. In addition, about 95 percent of production is done by hand using traditional techniques. For instance, bread rises in willow baskets covered in French linen. Dough is cut, weighed and shaped by hand.

“Each loaf of bread is touched by human hands at least five times,” says Mr. Ambeliotis, 56, of Robinson.

What further sets his bakery apart, he says, is the fact it’s grown into a family business. When he started, Mr. Ambeliotis mixed, shaped and baked all the bread himself and delivered it to customers in his car. Today, all four of his children work for him and in pivotal roles. His oldest son, Anthony, 31, is the production manager, while the second son, Mike, 33, serves as bakery and business manager. Daughter Nicole, 28, is a senior business manager, who handles marketing and social media, and her husband, Garrett McLean, is the sales manager.

Then there’s the youngest, Nicholas, who as head baker is responsible for scoring each and every raw loaf that goes into the 450-degree oven. The cuts give the bread its beautiful tic-tac-toe, diamond and other elaborate designs, and also controls which direction the loaves will spread while baking.

The company has grown organically along with its number of customers and sells in stores, including Whole Foods, in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Today, the bakehouse uses upward of 25 different doughs for 65 different recipes. It also makes all of chef Michael Symon’s hamburgers buns with an Austrian roll machine.

Because he considers bread a gift from God, Mr. Ambeliotis tries to enrich as many local families as possible with donations. Mediterra helps feed up to 100 families each week through St. Cyril of White Lake Food Pantry at Holy Assumption of St. Mary Orthodox Church in the South Side, and it sends countless loaves to other charitable organizations.

In 2012, Mr. Ambeliotis opened a second bakehouse near  Coolidge, Ariz., which rolls out 5,000 loaves a day during high season. Taking advantage of Arizona’s dry climate and substantial sunshine, Mediterra also is in the wheat business. Thirty-five planted acres yielded 100 pounds of wheat last July, and 250 pounds is expected from this year’s 70 acres. Mr. Ambeliotis hopes to  expand to 600 acres or more in the future and build his own millhouse.

Mediterra also is in the midst of a major expansion that will double the bakery and consolidate its pastry business, run by Mike’s wife, Aundrea, which provides desserts and other goodies to Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s and high-end hotels.

It’s not about the money so much, but giving back to the earth and being the best at what you do, Mr. Ambeliotis says.

“It’s been an amazing ride and has kept my family close,” he says.

A different kind of runner’s high

As he lines up for Monday’s Boston Marathon, John Platt will feel the same jitters as every runner, plus a few of his own. Did I train hard enough? Will I make it up Heartbreak Hill? At what mile will I go blind?

The Moon resident’s feet always are numb. It will feel like he’s running in work boots. His eyes will be glued to the ground as he thinks through every step.

When the Kenyan elites float past him around mile 11, he’ll be battling vertigo; by mile 18, his peripheral vision will go gray. That’s Uhthoff’s phenomenon, a rare side effect of his multiple sclerosis.

“It’s almost like a storm is approaching,” he says of his temporary blindness, which kicks in when his body gets too hot. “It gets darker and darker,” to the point where he has to stop and stuff ice into his skull cap and arm sleeves to cool down. That brings back his eyesight and puts him back on the course. Until he overheats and loses sight again.

But nothing will stop the 42-year-old father of two — not the weather, which plays roulette with his symptoms; not his doctors, who advise him to not run long distances; and not his body, which fails him every day.

“You run free,” he says. “Alive. In the moment. It’s an entirely different type of runner’s high.”

His doctor calls him “oppositionally defiant.” That makes Mr. Platt grin.

Pushing back

Some 400,000 people in the U.S. have multiple sclerosis, a chronic, degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Mr. Platt was 29 and watching the Daytona 500 on TV when he experienced his first symptom in 2003.

“The world started to spin,” he recalls.

The next day, while driving, he suddenly couldn’t see to his left. He lost feeling in his legs, then his balance. Doctors found a lesion on his brain that they thought might be the result of a stroke or a tumor. It took 18 months for them to diagnose multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Platt will never forget sitting on a paper-covered exam table at Allegheny General Hospital in 2005 when he was told: MS.

“Life almost stops for a second,” he says.

But part of him was relieved. Now he and his wife, Aimee, had a name for the inexplicable symptoms. They could push back.

There is no cure for MS; doctors treat its symptoms and reduce relapses with drugs that suppress the immune system, explains Troy Desai, Mr. Platt’s neurologist at AGH.

“But it won’t make him better or heal the damage,” Dr. Desai says.

Over the next seven years, Mr. Platt developed new symptoms: fatigue, memory loss, tremors. He walked like a drunk. The worst was Uhthoff’s, which struck one steamy June day in 2006 when he was making a sales call for a freight company in a hot warehouse. Even small increases in body temperature cause him to lose his vision. He lost his job. He wanted to give up.

Deeply depressed, he retreated to his air-conditioned home (cooled to 60 degrees) in Moon. To walk, he needed a cane. He had a wheelchair waiting in the garage.

Raising money, awareness

Doctors often prescribe exercise to help manage MS symptoms, but Mr. Platt started running after a personal crisis. In June 2013, he lost a friend from his MS support group to heart issues. He’d flooded his systems with many of the same high-dose steroids. Her sudden death hit him hard.

“I needed to do something about it,” he says.

He went to his basement, stepped onto a dust-covered treadmill his brother had given him, and took a first step. He had to hold tight to the handrails, and it took a half hour, but he walked a mile. The next day, he took a few steps more than that, and the next day, a few more.

The following November, cheered on by his doctors, he walked his first 10-kilometer course around his housing plan. Then, he walked a half-marathon.

In 2014, he got his first real pair of running shoes and a new goal: to raise money and awareness for the MS Society by walking the distance of a marathon every week for an entire year: 1,362.4 miles, or 2.5 million steps.

“That’s when I fell in love with the marathon,” he says.

Or at least his version of the race.

He walked a marathon in April 2014 as part of Pittsburgh’s annual MS Walk. With his father, John Platt, driving behind him at 4 mph, Mr. Platt left his house near Olson Park at 2:45 a.m. and walked to Point State Park. It took six hours.

He decided to try running. He was neither fast nor pretty — he drags his feet — but it improved his health and gave him purpose. He signed up for the Pittsburgh half-marathon in May 2014, and the following September ran 33 miles on a treadmill at Elite Runners, formerly in McKees Rocks, to raise money for MS research.

Matt Imhof, Elite’s director of running operations, still can’t quite believe it.

“He was on it for seven hours, with no breaks,” Mr. Imhof says. “He is so much tougher than the rest of us.”

Mr. Platt next ran three full marathons, the first — and his fastest marathon to date — in Chicago in October 2014. By year’s end, he had walked or run 1,667 miles.

In 2015, Mr. Platt decided to run the world’s largest — the New York City Marathon. But the day before the race, he wore out his legs with his wife and two daughters touring Times Square. As he came down Fifth Avenue during the last few miles of the race, he was visibly in so much pain that his wife jumped onto the course to run with him a quarter-mile to keep him going.

“You can’t be here!” he yelled. “They’re gonna grab you!”

His Chicago time had qualified him for the 2016 Boston Marathon, as one of 50 mobility-impaired runners. Five months later, he ran alongside athletes with spinal injuries and missing limbs, including Patrick Downes, who had lost his left leg in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

As expected, Mr. Platt’s vision went dark around mile 14. He lost 26 minutes icing down in four aid stations along the course. Still, the experience of running the “marathoner’s marathon” in under six hours was so profound, he couldn’t wait to do it again this year. But he would have to take a different approach.

During some race last year — he’s not sure when because he runs numb — he had fractured his pelvis. His doctor would allow him to continue running only with a trainer.

John Platt runs through his neighborhood this month in Moon. After two years of vision problems and balance issues, Mr. Platt was diagnosed in 2007 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that strikes the central nervous system. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Getting ready for Boston

Running always flares Mr. Platt’s MS symptoms, so he pushes to get used to wonky legs and a fuzzy head. He sweats buckets. Every so often, he trips and falls.

“I know every crack in every sidewalk,” he says.

His trainers press to make his body as strong as possible. Weekly workouts at Cool Springs Sports Complex in Bethel Park include weightlifting, speed work and battle ropes. Once a week, he strips down and slips his 6-foot frame into a negative 220-degree cryotherapy chamber to speed recovery.

Cooled to the core, Mr. Platt dresses, then steps into a pair of neoprene “Incredible Hulk” shorts that secure him inside an antigravity treadmill.

“These things give me a permanent wedgie,” he complains as he starts to jog. He’s quickly drenched in sweat.

His trainer, Jeremy McCullough, shakes his head and says, “I push him the same as any client.”

When the session is over, Mr. Platt holds up his right index finger. It’s quivering with fine tremors, a tell-tale sign of a flare-up — and of a good workout.

During Monday’s Boston Marathon, Mr. Platt, for the first time, will run with Mr. McCullough and another guide, Lauren Wentz. They’re there not to be his eyes, but to run ahead to the aid stations and explain his heat blindness to volunteers. They’ll stand ready with ice, hoping to shave minutes off last year’s time.

Mr. Platt understands that people think this is crazy. But as he has since his first step on that treadmill years ago, he’s thinking about his daughters Julia, 13, and Olivia, 11.

“I wanted to be active in their lives,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t want to be that dad that was inside looking out the window as they were playing. I wanted to be out there with them.”

Because they are significantly more likely to develop the disease, he worries that they might also hear the words, “You have MS.” His running shows them that you can overcome it.

“I’m definitely in a much better place because of marathons,” he says. “They really do change lives.”