ANSWERING THE CALL – Michelle Kanavos ’81

Seated at the controls of a Piper Cherokee 140, sixteen-year-old Michelle Wood was on final approach to Beverly (Mass.) Airport when her flight instructor, Bill Kobuszewski ’70, leaned over, switched off the engine, and said, “Now you are going to practice an emergency landing.” 

The young girl’s first thought was: What has he done now? followed by: Boy, is it quiet with no engine! Then she pointed the plane’s nose at the runway and focused.

A nurse practitioner, Michelle says learning to fly as a teenager taught her volumes about staying calm in emergency situations. In fact, only once did she lose her cool while in the air.

“A spider came down from the [cockpit] ceiling,” she recalls, “and Bill told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get it together and remember I was flying a plane. That was the last time I ever came unglued in an emergency.” 

Michelle Kanavos '81 checks the pulse of a Boston Marathon finisher who is feeling faint after the race.

Five foot two with strawberry-blonde hair, delicate features, and a mischievous smile, Michelle looks more like a high school cheer-leader than an ER charge nurse, but she runs a tight ship. Each Patriots Day for the past three years, she has captained the Finish Line or “Sweep” Medical Triage Team for the Boston Marathon, supervising 250 doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, communications personnel, and nonmedical assistants responsible for triaging, treating, and/or transporting distressed runners within a mile-and-a-half secured roadway around Copley Square.

The logistics of monitoring the well-being of more than 26,000 people (or roughly population of her childhood hometown of Melrose, Mass.) within a seven-hour period is challenging enough, but add extreme weather conditions and what you have in effect is a planned mass casualty drill.

In 2009, the second year Michelle was steering the ship, 45-degree temperatures with winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour caused hundreds of cases of hypothermia.

Last year, under relatively mild conditions, over 1,000 runners whose ailments ranged from hypothermia to hypoglycemia to exercise-related collapse were given emergency medical care in two on-site MASH-style medical tents. Another 288 runners suffering more serious issues were evaluated and then transferred to one of three DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team) tents, or by ambulance to area hospitals. These numbers don’t even begin to include the thousands who were administered to on site for less serious complaints such as blisters, nausea, cramping, exhaustion, or lightheadedness.

Cruising on Autopilot

While each marathon inevitably holds at least one or two surprises, Michelle has perfected her systems to the point where the sequence of events is now largely predictable: As the runners gather in Hopkinton for the 9:00 a.m. start, she meets with her staff of volunteers in John Hancock Auditorium. Standing on the same stage where her dance recital was held when she was five, she reviews protocol and then checks IDs, hands out jackets and credentials, and collects malpractice forms.

An hour later she can be found in Medical Tent A, issuing last-minute instructions to her zone captains, along with backpacks full of first-aid supplies: blood pressure cuffs, Band-Aids, Neosporin, splints, bandages, resuscitation masks, hand cleaner, and extra latex gloves.

By the time the elite runners have crested “Heartbreak Hill,” all 130 of her Sweep Medical Team volunteers are positioned in one of 15 designated zones, wheelchairs at the ready.

When the first finisher sprints down Boylston Street and, with arms raised, breaks the tape in front of Boston Public Library, the 120 doctors and nurses stationed in the medical tents are already treating patients picked up along the course.

What begins as a slow trickle of runners gradually grows into a steady downpour, and by 2:00 p.m. the roadway is so congested that the volunteers manning the food tables are tossing lunch bags into a sea of outstretched arms. The noise is deafening, and the only things you can see are the person directly in front of you and the ones to either side. From this point on, Michelle is cruising on autopilot. Ham operator at her side, she navigates her way swiftly between Medical Tents A and B, sidestepping banana peels, troubleshooting where necessary, monitoring the number of staff and wheelchairs in each section, radioing for backup when needed, and stopping frequently to help runners who are in distress.

Keep ‘Em Moving

The most important thing, Michelle says, is to keep the runners moving.

Michelle (Wood) Kanavos '81 directs volunteers at the Boston Marathon on April 17, 2010.

She covers about eight miles back and forth throughout the day, triaging as she goes. She says the more experienced you become, the easier it is to identify who’s at risk.

“After a while you develop an eye for picking out people that you know aren’t doing so well,” she says. “You walk up right next to them, and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and start to ask them several different questions: ‘What’s your name? What’s your [bib] number? How are you feeling? Is everything going okay?’ and in a matter of a minute or so you get a feel for whether or not this person’s okay, or if you need to hang with them for a couple of minutes and just kind of walk along beside them and see how they’re really doing.”

Regardless of what the person says, Michelle usually goes with her gut.

“If there’s any question, we put them in a wheelchair and off they go to the medical tent to be evaluated.”

According to Chris Troyanos, Medical Co-ordinator for the Boston Marathon, it’s not a job for the weak-willed.

“It is a huge undertaking,” says Troyanos, who has worked with Michelle for the past three Boston Marathons. “This isn’t one of those situations that we’re here to make friends. We have a job to do. I need someone that is strong, that can take direction, that can give direction, and that people want to follow, and Michelle has all those qualities. She’s a tremendous leader.”

Michelle says that each year she refines her processes based on lessons learned the year before.

“Some things get smooth, and some things we have to revamp, and that’s okay,” she says. “I think that’s part of being a good manager, is being willing to relook at things. 

A Turn in the Road

To watch her in action, one might assume that Michelle had worn scrubs her entire life, but in fact, nursing is her third career path. After graduating from Norwich with an English degree, she followed her father into the banking industry, but then switched to elementary ed. And although she truly loved teaching, something kept calling her to the medical field. Something buried in her past …

When Michelle was 11, she was badly burned in a freak accident and spent the better part of a year recovering in a hospital while undergoing multiple reconstructive surgeries on her leg. The suffering she endured imbued her with a compassion that, she says, defines her to this day.

Filled with visions of becoming a physician, Michelle kept going back to the same hospital—as a volunteer. At 14 she was a candy striper, delivering mail and flowers, bringing patients water, and making beds. Later, as a senior at Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield, she performed weekly community service there, assisting an orthopedic surgeon in the casting room.

“I would help Dr. Wright take casts off of people, wheel them over to X-ray and back, and then help put the casts back on,” says Michelle. “It was very messy. I’d go home covered in plaster.”

Her passion for medical service continued while at Norwich, where she volunteered on the ambulance squad and earned money as an aide at a local nursing home. But for various reasons, by the time graduation rolled around, her dream of a career in medicine had been placed on hold.

“Sometimes you have a calling,” Michelle says, “but you ignore it.”

Answering the Call

But she couldn’t ignore it indefinitely. After marrying her college sweetheart, becoming an Air Force wife, teaching elementary school, giving birth, and living overseas, destiny knocked on Michelle’s door again, and

A volunteer rushes a runner suffering from hypothermia into Medical Tent A for emergency treatment.

this time she answered. With her family’s support, she made the decision to return to school to pursue a nursing degree, earning her RN while at Fort Bragg and finishing her BSN at George Mason. Eleven years later she earned her MSN at UMass Worcester Medical School and became a nurse practitioner.

Today, in her internal medicine practice, Michelle performs many of the same functions as an MD—examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medications, and ordering tests—and in some ways it suits her better than if she had become a doctor, because of the close bond she’s able to form with her patients.

“She once explained to me the difference between a doctor and a nurse,” says her husband, Jay Kanavos ’81. “‘A doctor focuses on the physical part,’ she told me, ‘whereas a nurse sees the physical aspects, but also deals with the emotional part of the patient.’ And that to her is very, very important.”

The Best of Both Worlds

A visiting lecturer in the RN to BSN program at Framingham State College, Michelle now gets to meld her two great loves—teaching and nursing—into one, to their mutual benefit.

Brian Couture, a student in Michelle’s “Care of the Family” course who is studying to be a nurse practitioner, says he appreciates the hands-on experience she brings to the classroom.

“Michelle brings a lot of real-life experience to her teaching, which definitely complements the academic content,” says Couture. Michelle, in turn, calls upon her nursing students when she needs volunteers for large-scale events such as vaccination clinics or blood drives, giving them valuable experience in the field.

According to another FSC student—whose mother was dying at the time she was in Michelle’s “Nursing Research” class—Michelle applies the same compassionate attitude to her teaching as she does to nursing.

“She is the most empathetic person I have ever known. It was easier going through my mother’s death just being in the same room with her,” says Cordiero.

Cordiero, who took “Nursing Research” from Michelle, recently landed a job with a clinical research organization, and credits her mentor with helping her find her own calling.

“They say that you meet a teacher who changes the direction of your life just from the way they talk, or their intensity in what they’re doing, and I’ll tell you, she changed mine, and here I am and it’s great,” says Cordiero.

As for her future, Michelle may entertain yet another career change, according to her husband, Jay. “She’s told me that, maybe when we retire we could go to South America or someplace and help people there. She’s always talked about taking the skills she has from medicine and from teaching, and going someplace that’s under privi­leged, that doesn’t have what we have here, and go help them. That’s what drives her, her desire to help others.” – Diana L. Weggler


Despite the long hours she devotes to her practice and her teaching, Michelle Kanavos ’81 still finds time to give back to the greater community: She chairs the Board of Directors for the Medical Reserve Corps—a national emergency network of volunteers established by President George W. Bush in 2001 in response to

Jay Kanavos '80 pins on Michelle's major's bars in 1981.

911—in her hometown of Marlborough; she is the medical officer for her son’s Boy Scout troop, handling paperwork relating to medical issues; she recently finished a three-year term on the Board of Directors of the Parents’ Association for Auburn University in Alabama, where her daughter is a senior; and she currently serves as the 9th-grade Parent-Guardian Representative at her son’s high school. 

“She’s always doing something for somebody,” says her mother, Mary Wood. “That’s Michelle’s life.”

Through multiple career changes and moving every 24 to 36 months during the 20 years her husband, Jay Kanavos ’80, was in the Air Force, service to others before self has been perhaps the single most enduring constant in Michelle’s life, beginning with her childhood. 

“My parents were always doing volunteer work,” says Michelle, the eldest of four siblings. “You didn’t sit still in my house. You needed to be out and doing something. And if you were doing something good, that was even better.”

“We don’t live on an island, any of us,” says her dad, John Wood, a retired banker. “We really have to try to work together … we can’t just look to the government to do all the things we can’t. Government charity is not the same thing as individual or community charity … reaching out.”

This sense of altruism that Michelle learned at home was reinforced by her teachers at Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield, Mass.

“The good sisters were always adamant that we ‘give to others,’ and that philosophy fit well with my parents’ philosophy to ‘do good works,’” says Michelle. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, and what I’ve tried to bring forth in my life and my kids, is to treat others like you’d like to be treated. I have a strong faith, and I just try to live my faith.”

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