Some of the most inspiring stories anyone’s ever heard are a daily occurrence in the life of Encinitas orthotist Ara Mirzaian.
Out of his local Hanger Clinic office, Mirzaian has fitted orthotics on patients who have gone on to win medals in the Paralympics — in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro he had a cyclist and a kayaker — and for nearly a decade he has worked with a San Diego runner named Cheryl Hile, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.
Hile, 42, who was diagnosed in 2006, uses a brace to combat drop foot and has run more than 30 marathons since her diagnosis. She’s currently in the midst of an amazing journey on which she plans to complete seven marathons on seven continents in one year. Not surprisingly, when she completes the feat, Hile will be the first person ever to do it with MS.
“I’m very goal-oriented,” Hile said in an interview from Mirzaian’s Encinitas office. “That’s why I run so many races, it helps me navigate my MS because they are like these little mini goals that I can strive for.
“But I couldn’t do any of this without Ara’s help, without this brace. It was a real game-changer for me. I kept tripping and falling and I was getting depressed.”
Hile met Mirzaian about a year after her diagnosis and he fitted her with the best ankle foot orthotic (AFO) available at the time, which was merely a spring that picked her right foot back up for her, but used up energy.
She ran one marathon in that, but fortunately soon after came the first model of a Carbon Graphite AFO called The Noodle, which was able to store and return energy. Mirzaian met the creator of The Noodle and got Hile one of the first ones ever made.
“It was straight out of the oven,” said Mirzaian, who then shaped it specifically for Hile. “With this type of design, she is able to use less energy and complete marathons. I just make her braces and she does all of the hard work.”
Hile had been running marathons since 2000, but in 2006 she started getting symptoms that doctors initially misdiagnosed as sports injuries like nerve damage. But after a few months of that, an MRI showed what Hile was truly dealing with. And she met the challenge head on.
“Having a neurologist tell me to lower my expectations for running, I just got mad and wanted to prove her wrong,” Hile explained.
She battles the drop foot, with the help of Mirzaian, and another symptom where the entire right side of her body goes numb when her body heat from running exacerbates her MS. To combat this problem, Hile’s husband Brian runs alongside her in every marathon, making sure she doesn’t drift to her right.
“He’s also there to protect the other runners so I don’t bump into them. (In terms of running with the numbness), I guess I’ve just been running for so long my body knows what to do, I just can’t feel it,” Hile said.
In working toward this year’s goal, the pair has completed two marathons so far, in South Africa (in September) and Buenos Aires (October), and next on the docket is running the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 11.
The seven-continent goal means Hile will actually run a marathon in Antarctica in January, then hit Tokyo in February, Vienna, Austria in April and Christchurch, New Zealand in June.
For the Antarctica event, the group of runners participating in the marathon will fly to Chile and there is a five-day window during which the race director will monitor the weather and choose exactly when it is suitable for the race. Suitable in this case means up to 20 or 30 degrees. The group will then fly to Antarctica, the director will mark out a route, and the athletes will run on a combination of mud and gravel and probably a little snow.
Unlike the other runners, Hile will have to deal with her MS symptoms, which can flare up in the cold just as they do in the heat.
Before her MS symptoms started to show, Hile ran half-marathons at an 8:20 pace.
“Now I’m definitely much slower but I’m just happy I can keep running with MS, because it can stop you from moving at all,” Hile explained. “I’m hoping when I finally do stop running marathons, it will be on my own terms, not because I have MS.”
Hile grew up in Orange County, but has lived in San Diego since coming to UC San Diego in 1995 (except for a brief stint in Seattle from 2010-2013 during which she still came back to San Diego to have Mirzaian make her AFOs).
Back then, Mirzaian had a small local practice in La Jolla, which was bought out by the Hanger, Inc — a huge national prosthetic and orthotic company — in 2012.
That’s when he moved to the office in Encinitas, where his practice is booming.
Born and raised in Glendale, Mirzaian came to North County in 1987 and never moved back. He attended San Diego State to be a dietitian, but got into orthotics after an injury to his knee that was supposed to keep him away from snowboarding and surfing for a year or two.
A brace that was made for him allowed him to get back to those activities much sooner, and that inspired him to get into the field, so he went back to school, got certified and has been doing this work since 1992.
“Not too many people know about this field and it’s really growing,” said Mirzaian, whose wife, Donna, has taught at La Costa Heights Elementary in Encinitas since 1995. They have three kids who went through the Encinitas Union School District and are now seventh, ninth and 12th graders in the San Dieguito Union High School District.
After Mirzaian examines a patient, he orders the orthotic to be made in a factory based on his specifications, then he does little adjustments himself to make sure the piece fits and works correctly. For Hile’s AFO, that means cutting pieces down and creating a pad.
Hanger — which is famous in part for helping athletes with lost or malfunctioning limbs achieve lofty goals and also for creating the prosthetic tail for Winter, the dolphin who is the subject of the movie “Dolphin Tale” — has helped make Hile’s seven in seven goal a reality, sponsoring her trip to Antarctica, among other things.