Runner Jill Smart

Jill smart’s father, Jon Mattson, suddenly started experiencing intense itching. He felt mildly ill, but it was the itching that really bothered him. He saw his primary care doctor, who ordered a series of blood tests. Everything came back within the normal range. However, Jon’s doctor refused to give up.  He persisted in trying to figure out what was wrong. Finally, after ordering more extensive testing, he uncovered the problem. Jon had a tumor that was pressing on his bile duct. The bile was backing up, and this was causing the intense itching that Jon was experiencing. Jill is grateful for her father’s primary care doctor, because she feels that his persistence gave their family extra time with her father.

Jill Smart with her extended family
Jill Smart with her family

Jon was told that he was a good candidate for the Whipple surgery, which would remove the head of his pancreas and then reconstruct the digestive tract. He was due to have his surgery at Yale University, but  the Mattsons’ and the surgeon both had vacations scheduled. Jon and his wife of 40 years, Lois, discussed whether they should take their vacation or put it off until after surgery. Because their vacation would only delay the surgery by about a week, they decided to go and enjoy their time together. They could not predict when he would next have the ability to travel, so they decided that they would seize the opportunity and go.

When the doctors opened Jon up, they debated for an hour about whether or not they could successfully remove his tumor. They finally decided to attempt the Whipple. The doctors were able to remove the primary tumor in Jon’s pancreas. Unfortunately, his cancer had already spread. Jon would ultimately receive continuous chemotherapy through an infusion pump. His chemotherapy drugs and methods of infusions changed over the ensuing months.

Jon suffered with a lot of gastrointestinal problems following the Whipple. It is very common for Whipple patients to encounter a number of complications, and this was the case for Jon. Jon became malnourished  and had to be re-hospitalized. He was put on 16-hour-a-day liquid tube feedings. He worked with a nutritionist as soon as he was able and regained his strength. Eventually, his abdomen started filling with fluids. He had to have the fluids drained repeatedly.

Jon was 66 years old when he was diagnosed in 2006. He lived three more years, despite having to endure on-going treatments. During that time, Jon lived a life that was more full of adventure than that of most people who were not facing a terminal illness. He worked as long as he was able, and traveled with his wife. Jon and Lois took six trips to various exotic locations around the world. He fulfilled a lifelong dream of obtaining his motorcycle license. He was a large equipment salesman and he worked up until the final year of his life. He was a dedicated employee who refused to give up. Even though he was too sick during his final year to go to work, his work truck remained in his driveway. He and his co-workers refused to believe that Jon, as dedicated and tough as he was, would not beat his Pancreatic Cancer.

Jon’s adventurous spirit and willingness to try anything set an example for those around him. In September of 2008, the doctors told Jon that there was nothing more that they could do. Jon passed away in March of 2009, leaving behind a family that was devastated to lose their patriarch. However, they were also grateful that they had such an incredible person and role model in their lives. “It was a rough three years. It was a real emotional rollercoaster. Every time the phone rang, we wondered what news we were going to get,” Jill explains. She continues,” Now we remember the good stuff and try not to remember the bad.”

Jon pictured on Christmas Day.
Jon pictured on Christmas Day.

Jill did not start running until after her father passed away. At the time, she was the director of a small preschool. Some of the parents were organizing a 5k and she wondered if she could do it. Jill recalls, “I ran the 5k and didn’t die! Within a couple of months, I ran a 10k and then that fall I ran a half-marathon.”

Jill decided she would challenge herself by running a full marathon. Her first marathon was the Hartford Marathon. She was close to the finish line and she thought she heard someone say, “You’ve got this, sweetheart!” She had just run past a group of firefighters, and her dad had been a volunteer firefighter. She could feel the support of her father propelling her to the finish line.

In 2013, Jill set her sights on the Marine Corps Marathon. It was fitting for her to run the Marine Corps to honor her dad, who had been a Marine.

Jill's father, Jon, and brother, Eric. Both men are Marines.
Jill’s father, Jon, and brother, Eric. Both men are Marines.

She looked through the charity partners and found Project Purple. When she saw the motto, “Running to Beat Pancreatic Cancer”, she knew the charity would be the perfect fit. She filled out an application and was surprised when she received a phone call from Project Purple founder, Dino Verrelli, a short time later. “It was like talking to a long-lost friend,” Jill recalls.

Running the Marine Corps Marathon in honor of her father was an incredible experience for Jill. She ran with a shirt that had a picture of her dad in a tux and a picture of her brother in his Marine uniform. On the back, she had written “Semper Fi, Daddy”.

Jill's singlet for the Marine Corps Marathon
Jill’s singlet for the Marine Corps Marathon

Finishing that marathon was an incredibly powerful experience for Jill. Once again, she could feel her father’s presence, cheering her on as she crossed the finish line.

Jill at the finish of the Marine Corps Marathon
Jill at the finish of the Marine Corps Marathon

By 2015, Jill started feeling like she was missing out on something. She had run a half-marathon in New Hampshire on the same weekend that the Project Purple team was running in New York City. She sent a picture of herself to Dino and the caption said, “My feet are in New Hampshire, but my heart is in New York.” With that she decided to sign up to run with the team at the New York City Marathon this fall.

Jill enjoys her running and says, “Running keeps me sane!” The busy mother of two is always trying to balance motherhood, her work as a reading tutor and her running. She runs three to five times per week and does not do speed workouts. Despite her time and training constraints, she has run both of her previous marathons in 4 hours and 25 minutes.

Jill with her husband, Aaron.
Jill with her husband, Aaron.

Jill is looking forward to running with the Project Purple team this fall. She has enjoyed watching the astounding growth of Project Purple these past few years. She says, “The people I have met through Project Purple are wonderful and it feels like family. I run because I can and many people cannot. I hope to bring in funds so that other families do not have to go through what we did.”

Please support Jill’s New York City Marathon fundraiser by donating at the link below:

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