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A will to win

UAA runner faced his darkest days with the courage of a champion
It wasn’t the dark days or the cold snow that sent University of Alaska Anchorage’s star runner Marko Cheseto into an emotional spiral. It wasn’t the rigors of training hours upon hours for the demanding races he entered – and often won. It wasn’t the cultural change, either, of coming from Kenya, where he’d never seen snow, to Alaska, where he rarely didn’t.
Instead, the biggest challenge Marko Cheseto faced came in February 2011, when fellow Kenyan team­mate William Ritekwiang committed suicide. In the days and months that would follow, Cheseto would face a personal battle of depression, guilt and sadness that only his closest friends, teammates and coaches would know about. Long before he became a public spotlight after vanishing into a snowstorm on a late November evening – reemerging nearly 60 hours later, frostbitten and hypothermic – Providence was there.
“I came there twice,” said Cheseto of Providence’s Behavioral Health Unit, where he sought help to overcome his depression. Sitting in a visitor’s area of the 27-bed unit today, it’s hard to envision this smiling, grate­ful man ever feeling so low. After losing his feet to frostbite during that November episode, Cheseto is ad­justing to prosthetic feet, learning to walk, maintain balance and even run again. At age 29 he graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage in May, with aims to pursue a master’s degree in dietetics and one day oper­ate a health and wellness business to fight obesity. He laughs often, smiles always and is frank about those months when he felt so low.
His ordeal is mostly behind him, but the care that Providence provided during his darkest hours is something that will stay with him always.
“The first time, I thought, ‘A mental unit does not sound like a caring place. Am I in trouble?’ But everyone looked very friendly, and I learned that they do help you. They do care.”
That’s why Marko shares his story today. The sadness brought on by Ritekwiang’s death, and the guilt Marko felt over not recognizing signs of trouble, drove Marko into a de­spair the likes of which he had never known before. In his country, these are not commonly treatable illnesses.
“Where I come from, we are not very well off as far as medicine and psychiatry is concerned,” he said. “We don’t have enough doctors and (mental illness) is fear-associated.”
Marko first came to Providence’s Behavioral Health Unit immediately following Ritekwiang’s death. He stayed a week. While the visit helped, he continued to struggle and in April of 2011, he again, at the urging of his coach and teammates, checked in. This time he would stay for nearly a month.
“When I was there, I knew I was get­ting help, but there were things I was worried about,” he said. Paramount among those concerns was money. Marko was in Alaska on an athletic scholarship – his family had to sell livestock back in Kenya to even af­ford his plane ticket north. He had no money to pay for such intensive services, yet, he said, the folks at Providence told him not to worry, just to focus on getting better.
Their reassurances were legitimate. Cheseto was just one of more than 5,100 patients at Providence who received some $32 million in charity care in 2012. Knowing that his finan­cial burdens were mostly taken care of, he was able to focus on getting healthy again.
It’s a gift that, he said, is priceless.
“When I share my story and tell people where I was, it makes perfect sense to me,” Cheseto said. “I am doing this because of the help I got, not only from Providence, but from the community. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ to everybody.”
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