On Meeting the Magical Mel Cohen

Can you remember the last time you met someone and the impression they made on you stayed with you across time? Well two months ago at the Catalina Island trail races I enjoyed a rare sighting of an extraordinary person. I want to tell you about him.


One of my passions in life is meeting new people; all kinds of people in many different settings. This story began as ten of our family members settled into Avalon for race weekend. Most had signed up to compete in the races: the 5k, 10k, and the full marathon. I was sidelined due to a damaged left knee.

Early Saturday morning the 5k racers were assembling behind the start line. Lively music was setting the mood. The announcer was counting down, “Ten more minutes.” I’d just said goodbye to my husband, Ken, who was determined to finish this very steep, mountainous 5k race. (In spite of my heavy objections due to health concerns). He was entered in the 80-100 division).

As I began to take my place on the sidelines, out of the corner of my eye, I saw another racer posing with his family under the race banner. This is not so unusual before a race, however, this man was grinning as he posed with his family members behind his walker!! 


Really, I thought. I am concerned about Ken and this gentleman is competing in his walker? I admit I had never heard or seen such a thing in 50 years of being a part of race events.

I think you know me well enough to realize that I had to investigate!


I rushed over to the plastic fence separating the spectators from the competitors. I leaned in and called to him, “Hi there! So you are racing today?” I enquired.

He smiled, “Yes, I’m Mel!”

“I am Donna! “ I explained.

With an engaging smile he came over to me. We shared more welcoming expressions. He offered, “I am 95 years old!”

“This is fantastic! My husband is racing too!”

“I’m bringing my doctor”, he emphasized, “just in case!.” 

“Your doctor? Well that is certainly something! You will be racing against my husband. You are both in the 80-100 category. There are three of you!”


“My doctor will stay close by.” I know my face showed my interest; Mel waited a beat then announced, “He’s my son!”


We both chuckled a bit as we chatted, acknowledging that racing in a walker was not the most typical thing one does. I wondered if it were even safe? I worried enough about Ken as the course is steep, and now this!


“Racers line up. Five minutes to start!” Bellowed from the loud speaker.” I knew my time with him was short. We were enjoying getting acquainted but the starting gun was about to go off.

 “So, Mel, any chance of a photo?”


A lady standing nearby volunteered, “Hey, I’ll take it.” Mel moved closer to the fence and reached his arm around me as we beamed for the photo.


It was so unusual to see a racer with a walker that I had previously snapped some shots of him in a three generational photo. I wished him luck and they were off.


Two hours or so later, our 5k and 10k racers were in, and Ken was cooling down after a successful finish, coming in second place in his age category, behind an 85 year-old runner. I spotted Mel and his entourage strolling down the sidewalk flanked by his son and 12 year-old grandson.

“Ken, there’s the man I was telling you about! Come on I want you to meet him.”


Ken replied, “Oh yes, I said ‘hi’ to him on the race course.I beat him,” Ken added, with a twinkle in his eye. ”Can you imagine what the family would have said if I hadn’t!”


“You have to meet him. He’s not like anyone I’ve ever met. He’s stuffed full of joy and warmth.”


We walked over and I made the introductions. The two men immediately hit it off. Both are heart patients, and they had so much to say to one another. They were soon deep in conversation In the meanwhile, the doctor son and I were talking about the race. 

Smiling he said, “I tucked a defibrillator into the walker! I was not taking any chances.” 


We exchanged serious looks, understanding that the steep inclines demanded by the race would be a challenge to anyone, much less for our loved ones.


Clearly, the day was significant. Mel had come in 3rd place at 1:52. His grandson, Jack, finished in first for his age group at 30:32.


As the two senior racers continued chatting, I explained to Mel’s son that my husband was a heart patient and this was a very big deal. Clearly it was also important to their family, especially considering the risk to Mel. 

Ken and Mel continued with their deep conversation. I could hear “potassium levels and ejection fraction.”


The son, Dr. Ron Cohen, and I stood on the periphery. After awhile, seeing my elaborate knee brace, Dr. Ron offered.

“I might be able to help you with that.” 


Intrigued, I asked, “Are you an orthopedist?”

“I am.”


He explained that he specializes in stem cell regeneration therapy and that about 65% of the time there is great success for appropriate candidates. “My father has had a positive result.”


Of course I was interested, having already lined up my knee replacement surgeon.

Soon they had to get going, but he asked for my phone and entered his cell phone number as he repeated, “I might be able to help.” With that, the family continued on. 


Back at the hotel, Ken and I remarked on our encounter with Mel. We agreed that he was extraordinary, not just his age, or his walker, his heart condition, or the race, but the man himself. He is the rare individual who exudes warmth that transcends all that. 


Seldom in my life have I encountered such a person. Ken and I marveled at Mel’s ability to shine the light on others. He communicates that he really sees you. 

We remained under his spell. I Googled him and learned that he was a family physician for a full career. I later was to learn that he practiced medicine in the Los Angeles area until he was 88 years old, and finally retired to be closer to his family in San Diego after the passing of his beloved wife, Barbara.


I did follow up with his son, the orthopedist, who three weeks ago harvested my stem cells and placed them into my damaged knee. During my third and last last procedure, Mel drove himself to the medical offices where he and Ken and I continued our animated conversation enjoying more time together.


Ken is a bit reticent by nature. It is so satisfying to see his affection for this man. They have so much in common; competitive racing, serious medical issues, and a love of family life.


As our friendship has grown, I have learned that his wife of 66.5 years, Barbara, was a pharmacist and at age 50 went back to school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist. A calling she loved. 

The couple had four children, three boys and a girl, and there are 9 grandchildren and one great grandchild. 

Becoming more acquainted with Dr. Ron Cohen, I see the immense respect and devotion he holds for his dad.


I interviewed Mel in order to discover why in the world he was out on that difficult race course! I texted him the time I would call after my horse ride. As our call connected, he opened with, “So Donna were you out riding bareback?”

I laughed “No Mel I finally learned to use a saddle a few years back.


“I am reading Capistrano Trails. You’re a wonderful writer.” 

“Well, thank you! I’m interested in how you came to be out on that steep race course?”

The answer was simple: his grandson, Jack, wanted to do the race and Mel impulsively said he would do it with him. He admitted he had no idea the course had changed. It used to be much flatter. In a whisper, he confessed, “I had to stop along the way and catch my breath.”


Mel’s family, like our family, have been lifetime regulars at Catalina and frequent racers across the last 45 years or so,


“Mel, so what has been your secret? “


“I practiced medicine for so long because I loved my patients. I had three different practices across the years: Family medicine, Medical Hypnosis, and Geriatric Patient Care. I loved all of it.”


“Tell me more about this running?” I asked.


“Well I have always been attuned to my body. I always jogged in the mornings. Every year on my birthday I would run to my office ten miles away. Even now, I am on the stationary bike five days a week.”

Ken has a lunch date with him in a few weeks. What draws us to Mel is not just what we have in common: it is something in his character; his humanity. It is his obvious love of others, his love of life, all of which emanates from him. He is one of the rare people who make the world better just by being in it.


As a student of human happiness I have been intensely interested in the foundations of joyful living: a life purpose, work that is fulfilling, connections, and exercise. Clearly Mel has practiced these principles for some 95 years with grace and humility.


Next time I see a runner at the starting line posing in his or her walker, I will not hesitate to go over and say hello. You never really know how remarkable a person is, or how much you can learn from them, until you risk finding out.


I sure would like to hear about an unforgettable person you have encountered. 

My best, donna