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Brave Like Gabe

June 19, 2019


What is it like to lose your life at thirty-two? 

It depends on how you lived. 

Though I never met her, in every picture I have seen, there are three things that instantly distinguish Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald: dancing eyes, a smile that lights up the room, and a foot-long scar traversing her abdomen. 

If you haven’t heard of Gabe Grunewald, then welcome back from Mars. Gabe was a thirty-two-year-old phenom distance runner. She was a walk-on for the University of Minnesota track team who soon became the team captain and an All-American athlete. Graduating from college in 2010, she pursued a professional running career in which her fourth place Olympic trial finish just missed qualifying for the 2012 London Games. One year later, her 2013 fifteen-hundred meter finish made her the eleventh fastest American female in history to compete in that event. In 2016, Gabe would reach the fifteen-hundred meter finals in the Olympic trials with the hopes to go to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Though she wouldn’t qualify, she next set her eyes on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. 

And by the way, she achieved all of this while battling cancer.

Gabe was diagnosed in 2009 with a rare cancer of the salivary gland known as adenoid cystic carcinoma. In 2010, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. A spate of surgeries (parotidectomy, thyroidectomy) and radioactive iodine treatment interrupted, but never ended, her running career. In fact, in 2014, she would claim the title for the three thousand meter United States Indoor Track Championship. But in 2016, an incidentally discovered liver mass led to the diagnosis of metastatic recurrence of her original cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma. A surgery to remove the right lobe of her liver led to an almost trademark scarred mid-riff. Within a year,  further tumors had recurred in her liver, requiring chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and ultimately, radio-embolization. But Gabe kept running. And winning. Gabe’s story, seemingly impossible to keep private, caused a sensation. 

Gabe seemed to be comprised of the greatest of paradoxes: a fierce athlete with steely resolve and a relentless drive to achieve, she was simultaneously warm and engaging. In the harrowing trials of elite athletics and deadly illness, Gabe became more human, not less. As she told the New York Times, “I’m a young adult with cancer. I don’t always love talking about it. It’s not a made-for-TV movie. It’s real. It’s scary.” A quote splashed across her website insists, “Be resilient and still stop to smell the roses.” 

Running—first a hobby then a profession—had become a solace for her. She felt so much better when running. As she wrote, “I believe that continuing to pursue my goals on the track has helped me to carry on with purpose in my life in the face of an uncertain future. . . . Being brave, for me, means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive.”

But Gabe never let her illness simply be about her.  She desperately wanted to encourage any and all people afflicted with cancers—especially rare ones with little research or clinical trials for treatment—that life must go on. So she formed a foundation, Brave Like Gabe, to raise money and awareness for rare cancers like her own. Gabe wrote,

I remember feeling devastated when I realized how little research had been done on my cancer and the fact that there were not any FDA-approved treatments for my disease—I don’t want any patient to feel that way; that they’re alone in their fight or that the medical research community doesn’t care about their cancer.

My goal is to raise awareness for these diseases, the research funding disparities, and other challenges that prevent these cancers from having effective treatment options. Through Brave Like Gabe fundraising efforts, we will support research and accelerate treatments for rare cancer patients.

In recent days, Gabe’s illness took a turn for the worse. But something extraordinary happened. As her husband described to thousands of well-wishers on Facebook (full disclosure: Justin is an excellent internal medicine doctor whom I have been privileged to get to know during his residency training), Gabe had become terribly acidotic (blood levels of acid had risen to dangerously high levels). In spite of heroic efforts by all manner of intensive care physicians and nurses, her condition worsened. With indescribable pain, Gabe’s husband and family decided to step back from failing heroics and focus on comfort. As Justin would write,

I actually got the opportunity to say goodbye to her alone and inform her that she was dying, at that time she did not seem to be comprehending much. Shortly after I told her she was dying, she took a deep breath and yelled, “NOT TODAY.” We went to bed shortly after I felt for her radial pulse all night on her arm with her mother and ——— sleeping on her other side. At around 8 am, when the critical care doctor came in the room, Gabe woke me up because she wanted to order breakfast. After stopping cares most of her labs had normalized on their own and she is now eating @shakeshack burger out of the ICU. Talking to all my doctor colleagues, they have never seen another patient survive similar circumstances. It can only be explained as divine intervention or miracle.

Irreplaceable hours of lucidity and conversation were gained. But within several days, Gabe would deteriorate again and family would choose to bring her to the comfort of her own home. Upon arriving home from the hospital, Gabe and Justin’s condo had been warmed by many beautiful touches thanks to friends Chip and Joanna Gaines. Gabe would pass away quietly surrounded by loved ones on June 11. A Mass of Christian Burial was held at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis shortly thereafter. 

And afterwards, everyone went for one more one-mile run in honor of their brave, beloved, and fallen hero. 

What is it like to lose your life at thirty-two? 

It depends on how you lived. 

As Gabe slipped away, framed and painted words adorned the wall above her: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is miracle.” 

As Justin would write, “[Gabe] chose the latter.” 

Gabriele Grunewald, child of God, Requiescat In Pace.

To support vital research for rare cancers like Gabe Grunewald’s, please visit her foundation Brave Like Gabe at