“When I run, my mum cheers me on from above”

Laura is the youngest member of the 25-person PARI RunAIR team. In an interview, she tells us how she discovered her passion and why running helps her to process the death of her mother a bit better.


Laura discovered running five years ago. The 27-year-old loves nothing more than waiting at the start line for a race to start, especially half marathons, and would cross a finish line every month if she could. She is also the youngest member of PARI RunAIR. A running group of 25 enthusiastic athletes who take part in races across Germany for people with respiratory diseases in order to raise donations for people who have less air to breathe. Laura applied for PARI RunAIR to honour her mother. “I wanted to raise awareness of severe respiratory diseases”, she explains, as her mother died in March 2019 of COPD and cancer. Laura still remembers every detail of the last few hours of her mum’s life, spent by her side in the hospital. Her mum always accompanied her to her races – she was her daughter’s biggest fan. “I think about her a lot. Even though she can’t come with me to races any more, she is there with me in spirit and I can feel her looking down on me from above.”

“My mother gave up a lot for me, so I want to give something back”

Laura’s mother was diagnosed with COPD six years ago, “which turned our family’s lives upside down”. Initially Laura didn’t think the problem was that bad: “It was only much later, when my mother was dependent on oxygen, that I became aware of the extent of the disease”, she remembers. “My mother kept smoking even then, though a lot less”. After finishing school, Laura started studying to become a nurse in another city. “I saw a lot of children in the hospital using the PARI BOY inhaler”, she says. But soon her mother couldn’t be as active as she used to be. Laura decided to give up her career to move back to her hometown to be close to her mother and help her with her everyday needs.

“My mum used to be an anaesthetist in a hospital, but she gave up her job for me,” says Laura. Laura was born with a lymphangioma behind her right eye: A rare, benign tumour of the lymph vessels, which grows bigger. Many operations later and with more to come, it had spread to half of her face. “I had at least five major surgeries lasting up to twelve hours, and countless smaller ones”, says Laura. “By 2013, I only had 40% vision in that eye. After that, one of the operations had complications and I’ve been practically blind in one eye since then”, she says. “But the eye is still there, that’s the main thing.” Laura even rides a motorcycle, a Kawasaki: “The speed and feeling of adventure give me a rush”. Her next destination: The Black Forest.

“It was horrible having to see how she could no longer catch her breath. It was horrible having to see how nobody could help her anymore”.

The last year and a half before her mother’s death was particularly intense for Laura. “When my mother could no longer go back to her bedroom, I slept with her in the living room. I cooked lunch for my parents, educated myself about the medical equipment, oxygen and the disease so I could do everything that was in my power to do”, says Laura. Laura wanted to be by her mother’s side 24 hours a day, so that she never had to be alone in her last few months. “The COPD struck hard, because my mother was also really thin. She barely weighed 40 kilograms and was 165 cm tall”, says the runner. She started seeing a physiotherapist, but too late, and switched her diet to one higher in calories. “I feel like I didn’t do anywhere near enough for my mother. I hope this guilt will eventually go away”, she says. Whenever her mother saw anything delicious on the television, Laura ran out and bought it for her. “Avocados, couscous, chickpeas... I ate everything with her so she would eat as much as possible – unfortunately it was all too late”. Only towards the end of her life did her mother gain a sweet tooth, “for example for Kinder chocolate biscuits”.

She never saw her mother cry: “she was strong and fought until the very end”. For her family, fighting also meant spending a lot of time in the fresh air and nature. “Even when she was in a wheelchair and needed oxygen, we went for walks as much as we could”. Laura explains that, at that time especially, her dad suppressed feelings, worked a lot, and always appeared optimistic. “Even when we spent 24 hours per day together in the three weeks before her death, my father still thought we would be able to take her back home with us”, she says. “It was really hard for him: after all, they were married for over thirty years”.

Running to raise awareness and to cope with grief

Laura started running while her mum was still ill, which provided her with mental support in particular. Her mother was always by her side from the warmup until she crossed the finish line, despite her illness. “My parents were always there, spectating and waiting for me at the end,” says Laura. Laura ran her first half marathon in Karlsruhe in 2016. At the forefront of her mind was one thing: “every mile is for my mum”. Whenever she didn’t want to train, her mother gave her the drive to stick with it, to go out and keep training for the next event. If races took her further from home, Laura’s parents supported their daughters’ athletic ambition by taking weekend trips away. “The silver lining of my mother’s illness was that we grew closer as a family”, she says, looking back. The three of them travelled all around Europe. “During this time, the main thing I realised is how important family really is and how you can grow closer even if things are bad”.

Laura has fond memories of her first marathon in particular. Her mother wanted to accompany her to Hamburg, but it was too far for her, as she was already in a wheelchair. “My mother had also received a diagnosis of cancer, which was the end of the world for me”. So Laura decided to go to Freiburg instead – her mother’s favourite city, where she studied long ago. The city was filled with many positive memories for her mother. “I will never forget the moment that I crossed the finish line and saw her sitting there in her wheelchair. We hugged each other and cried”, says the runner. In early 2019, Laura lost her mother to the COPD and cancer. “Now I must spur myself on, but I keep running. It’s still for my mum”, says Laura.

Thank you very much for the interview, Laura.

Laura Schillfahrt has worked as a nurse in a hospital. “My tip for parents helping small children with inhalers: keep things light and playful when it comes to inhalers so children realise that inhaling isn’t “dangerous” and doesn’t hurt, but instead can be fun. For example, first pretend that their teddy bear is using the inhaler, or parents could demonstrate it several times”.

Note: The statements made in the report are the individual view of the person reporting. They do not necessarily reflect the PARI view or the general state of science.

An article written by the PARI BLOG editorial team.

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