BALTIMORE — Speeding down the gated-off road at Loch Raven Reservoir, Matt Bender smiles as he rides his triathlon bike past the lush green trees surrounding the serene premises.
An accomplished Ironman amateur participant for the past five years, the 6-foot Bender crouches over his bike as he rests his hands on its aerobars. Donned in a blue and black jersey kit, he explains that his 100-mile Sunday bike rides are a time to relax, unwind and get away from his hectic life on the weekdays.
“If you asked other people in my life, I think they would say that I have some degree of exercise addiction,” Bender said. “But the other thing is that for me, it balances the stresses of my job.”
Work for Bender starts with a walk down the halls of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Wearing his blue scrubs and a white coat that reads “Matt Bender, MD Neurosurgery,” Bender navigates the hospital’s winding halls into the pre-anesthesia unit. There, his patients wait to be prepped for their upcoming procedures.
On this day in June, a man in his 70s sits comfortably on a gurney, waiting to be taken for a diagnostic cerebral angiogram, which helps doctors examine blood vessels in the head and neck, including the brain, using high-tech imaging equipment to take X-rays.
Bender approaches the man with a friendly smile and a quick greeting.
“Knock, knock. How’s it going? I’m Dr. Bender, one of the fellows for Dr. Coon. Are we ready today?” A nervous smile sweeps across the man’s face. He’s ready. Bender is, too.
Bender, 32, is a sixth-year postgraduate neurosurgery resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital and is completing a two-year endovascular fellowship under the direction of Alexander Coon, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. Coon is one of the world’s experts in the endovascular treatment of cerebral aneurysms and is known for his use of flow-diverting stents.
Like Bender, Coon is an Ironman participant. Both competed in the Ironman 70.3 Eagleman in Cambridge, Md., on June 11. Bender was 15th overall, first in the amateur category and first in his age category (30-34 years old). The Baltimore resident did his first Ironman in May 2012 at Ironman Texas after he got hooked on triathlons through friends while he was in medical school at Johns Hopkins.
“It was a lifetime achievement to finish one of those,” Bender said. “I remember being very impressed when I heard my buddy had done one, and I never expected it to be something I would do on an ongoing basis or something that I would actually be very, very good at.”
Bender’s next Ironman will be his eighth — Ironman Mont-Tremblant in Canada on Aug. 20. The race consists of a 2.4 mile swim , a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon (26.2 miles).
To the surprise of his colleagues, Bender has found time to both do his job and train for triathlons.
“Matt is very, very good,” said Narlin Beaty, a recent neurosurgery resident graduate from Johns Hopkins Hospital. “It’s pretty impressive. He’s pretty dedicated to two things in his life. Ironman and this.”
Bender works anywhere from 60 to 88 hours a week, switching days between Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to perform cases. That means getting 15 hours of pure cardio a week for training can be difficult. Running to work is sometimes the only option.
“All you have to do is grab your [phone] and a pair of underwear and my glasses, and I can just run over there with those things in my hand,” Bender said. “That’s the nice thing about being a doctor. You get towel service and you get clean scrubs, and you can pick those up at work, and you don’t have to carry anything more with you.”
If he doesn’t run in the morning, Bender will go for a 4:45 a.m. swim at his local gym or a run at night. Bender and his girlfriend, Alex Murray, try to go on three-to-six-mile runs every night around Baltimore. Bender will sometimes take a longer loop home to put in extra miles. Whoever makes it home first will start dinner, usually homemade pasta, pizza, salad or things on the grill.
But with any type of athletic activity, Bender’s outdoor training comes with risks. He has broken multiple bones from riding his bike and running near the Inner Harbor.
Only four days before his big race at the 2016 Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Bender broke his big toe while training. He didn’t know whether he could race on it but did anyway and finished 38th in his age division with a time of 9:32:56.
Bender’s training isn’t the only thing that comes with risks. At work he performs hundreds of diagnostic cerebral angiograms, the same procedure he performed on the man in his 70s on that early morning in late June.
During the procedure, patients are sedated but awake. It’s part of Bender’s job to talk to the patients during the operation, all while maneuvering a catheter through the blood vessels of the body up to the neck and head. From there, an iodine dye is injected into the blood vessel so X-rays can be taken.
The process allows Bender to see whether there are any blockages of blood vessels. If there is a blockage, doctors can use different techniques to unblock the artery. But the procedure isn’t foolproof. There can be infections at the puncture site where the catheter is injected or — more serious but less common — a stroke.
But with the man in late June, Bender maintains his composure in the operating room, getting through the surgery without any complications. When he is done, he exits the room, takes off his surgical face mask and glasses and examines the X-rays with Coon.
Their eyes flicker across the images. It’s all positive. There’s no sight of an aneurysm, which, if ruptured, could cause a stroke. Bender takes a quick note. When the patient is fully awake, Bender sets off into the halls, into the pre-anesthesia unit. There, Bender tells the man and his wife the good news. The man, still tired from the sedation, gives a nod. And as Bender leaves, the man’s wife smiles and reaches for her husband’s hand. It’s over. For now.
But for Bender, his day has just begun. It’s only noon. He has more cases, more patients to see. And after work, he will go on a run with Murray because his training never stops.