Tonya Mandl (left) and her son Phineas (right) getting ready for their Saturday morning run at Woodley Park. Phineas recovered from a sinus infection that previously left him unable to properly move or speak.

After a rare sinus infection left a Nobel Middle School student unable to speak or move the right side of his body, doctors believed it would take years of therapy for him to function normally.

But after an incredibly speedy recovery, he’s ready to take on this Sunday’s big event — the Los Angeles Marathon.

On March 20, Phineas Mandl will join more than 2,000 middle and high school students from 180 schools in the greater Los Angeles area who will be participating in the LA Marathon as part of Students Run LA (SRLA). The nonprofit program has provided free youth mentoring and marathon training throughout the county for 32 years.

Nobel Middle School, located in Northridge, is one of many Valley schools that take part in SRLA. Like the others, Nobel students have been preparing for the marathon since September.

Tonya Mandl, Phineas’ mother, is one of the leaders of SRLA at Nobel. Tonya has been associated with the program for seven years and became a leader in 2021. Being a leader during the pandemic brought on its own challenges, one of the most prominent being lower team morale.

The 2021 LA Marathon was moved from its usual March timeslot to November, leaving SRLA students unable to participate in an official capacity. Students had to keep their stats and times for their individual practice runs and virtual marathon, preventing a sense of camaraderie from forming between teammates.

Nobel Middle School students in the Students Run LA Program (SRLA) wearing their uniforms the weekend before the LA Marathon.

“I think the biggest impact that I noticed and my other coaches noticed was we didn’t have that bonding … our students throughout the course of the season [feel],” Tonya said.

“They build really close friendships with each other. But that’s because of all the time we spend together at lunch, on the runs, on the buses and that just was nonexistent.”

Another issue was a decrease in interest from students in the program. In years’ past, at least 60 kids would apply for the program that could only fit around 19. This year, 24 students applied. In a bit of irony, this allowed for all the students who applied to have a spot. Some schools gave up their extra spots so Nobel could accommodate a few more.

However, Tonya and her 14-year-old son faced another, more personal, ordeal on the road to the marathon.

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A Fast Decline and a Remarkable Rise

On Christmas Eve, Tonya took Phineas — who has autism — to the emergency room for a high fever, for which he got antibiotics and was sent home. The next day, his speech began to slur. On Dec. 26, he was barely able to look right and unable to write. After another trip to the emergency room and an MRI scan, doctors found an abscess (a swollen area within body tissue that contains an accumulation of pus) on the left side of his brain.

According to doctors, Phineas had contracted a very rare sinus infection that only occurs in teenagers between the ages of 13 to 15. He was rushed to the ICU and underwent two surgeries: an endoscopic surgery into his sinuses and brain surgery. Doctors were unsure if Phineas would fully regain his speech and mobility, and estimated it would take years of physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“It was very scary,” Phineas said. “I couldn’t write correctly and the right side of my body, I couldn’t move it properly. … Those things were all terrifying for me.”

To the surprise of doctors, Phineas managed to recover some of his speech and mobility after eight days. The neurosurgeon said it should have taken him six weeks to make that amount of recovery.

After two weeks, he was discharged from the hospital. After another four weeks, the sinus infection was completely gone, and Phineas was back to normal.

Doctors attribute Phineas’ amazing recovery to his high physical fitness; he was in SRLA the school year before and completed a virtual marathon.

“He was in a scary situation, but he was stoic and determined to get better,” Tonya said. “He wanted to go home. He didn’t want to be in the hospital, so he worked really hard in the hospital bed to get better. And I just think SRLA has a lot to do with that.”

Phineas originally planned to only just cheer on his team when he left the hospital since he still couldn’t stand properly. But when he attended one of the practice runs, he noticed that they all wore a button that said, “Running with Phin, SRLA 2022.”

After seeing his teammates’ support for him, Phineas only had one thing to say to his mom.

“When can I run?”

Running with the Pack

Three weeks later, Phineas was back in school and on the track, running five miles on his first day. He was still taking his medication and wore a PICC line (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) in his left arm as he ran. He has his doctor’s approval to run in the marathon provided that he doesn’t overexert himself and Tonya is there with him.

“It’s very exciting,” Phineas said. “It’s my first actual LA Marathon … and I’m excited to finish it.”

Phineas plans to continue participating in SRLA when he graduates from Nobel. He is hoping to enroll in Taft High School.

He and 22 of his schoolmates will be running in the Marathon with him. One will not be participating due to recently testing positive for COVID.

As part of a tradition at Nobel, SRLA students who complete the marathon will give a speech during a school assembly about their experiences in the program. Tonya said these speeches demonstrate the growth these students go through while in the program, building up their confidence to tackle other challenges in the future.

“SRLA is one of the most amazing programs I’ve ever experienced,” Tonya said. “It brings me joy to see how much it gives to the students and I just hope it continues and spreads to other cities too. It’s not a [marathon]-training program — it’s a goal-building program and a life-changing program.”

The LA Marathon begins at 6:30 a.m. at Dodger Stadium and ends at 2000 Avenue of the Stars, near Beverly Hills High School. Along with Nobel Middle, other San Fernando Valley schools participating include San Fernando High, Pacoima Middle, Van Nuys High, Chatsworth High and Poly High.