The call bell light in room 12-204 was the first to go off at the crack of dawn, breaking the serene silence of the floor. “I need to shower so I can see the race!” the patient exclaimed.
She carefully selected her robe and stood eagerly in her doorway, announcing to every passerby that she was ready. Bundled in multiple scratchy hospital blankets to ward off the morning chill, she and other staff members made their way outdoors. They joined a throng of other patients with cancer, as well as survivors.
The early riser’s nurse, Mario Lupone, had told her the night before that he was riding 62.5 miles across the Connecticut terrain to honor her fight with cancer. She was not going to miss wishing him luck.
“Seeing her outside with all the other patients makes you feel great about being an oncology nurse and why we do what we do,” Lupone said. As a charge nurse known for his bright cheer and corny jokes, he has raised over $15,000 as a Closer to Free Ride participant.
The Closer to Free Ride is an annual Connecticut cycling event—100% of the funds raised go toward patient care at Smilow Cancer Hospital and research at the Yale Cancer Center. These funds play an important role in multiple facets of cancer care, such as providing genetic counseling to high risk patients, providing resources toward melanoma research, expanding the availability of clinical trials, and funding survivorship clinics. Riders raise a minimum of $500 by soliciting donations.
In September 2017, hundreds of riders of various cycling levels launched from the Yale Bowl and pedaled through the winding New Haven streets. Some bikes sported ultralightweight carbon fiber frames with vibration-canceling composite technology, while others flaunted aerodynamic handlebar tassels and trundles, along with helmeted children. When they approached the hospital on Park Street, the undulating wave of blue and white riders slowed for the “Smilow salute.” Riders disembarked to hug and shake hands with cancer patients cheering in front of the hospital. Bright yellow bands on jerseys signified cancer survivors. Other participants included family members riding in memory of loved ones, as well as oncology nurses who care and support patients with cancer in every stage of their battle.
One nurse, Maureen Raucci, was captain of Team Live Positive, which has raised over $843,000 for cancer research since 2010. In 2017 alone, the team raised an incredible $192,603.
As a nurse manager on a medical oncology unit of Smilow Cancer Hospital, Raucci witnesses not only the battles fought by many patients but also the positive light that the patients exude—and the source of the team’s name. When she first heard about the Closer to Free Ride in 2010, Raucci knew that she had to start a team. “I knew all the positivity and healing that would come from the ride, and I knew that I had to be a part of that here,” she said.
In its inaugural year, Team Live Positive consisted of 12 friends riding in honor of 2 friends battling melanoma and leiomyosarcoma. In 2017, Team Live Positive comprised 122 riders, assisted by many more volunteers. Raucci kept members engaged all year through Facebook posts and e-mails featuring a Survivor or Patient of the Week.
The reaction from patients who see their nurses alongside them in the Closer to Free Ride is incredibly affirming, Raucci says: “They feel wholeheartedly and holistically supported by their team, both in the hospital and outside of the hospital.”
Raising over $843,000 over 7 years has actually been easy for the team, according to Raucci. “For us as nurses, if we just share our story, people are willing to give,” she said. “Every dollar counts. Our team motto is ‘Each mile we ride, every dollar we raise, brings us 1 step closer to free.’”
Brianna Lutz, another member of Team Live Positive, believes that participating is therapeutic for the providers who work in this emotionally demanding field. “Often, in inpatient oncology, it’s easy to get lost in the sad stories and feel like the negativity is overpowering,” says Lutz. “Fund-raising efforts are an important reminder that there is hope, and there is a lot of research on the horizon to look forward to.”
At the end of the day, the wheels stopped turning and the kickstands scraped down into the ground. Dust and grime from hundreds of miles coated the bikes, and riders compared blisters and complained about sore butts. The sweat-soaked jerseys stayed on as long as the smiles brightened tired faces. Riders, their bikes attached to racks or haphazardly jammed into SUVs, drove back home. While some Closer to Free Ride participants were avid cyclists who would continue to pump away on slick roads or off-beaten paths in the days ahead, others would store their bikes for the fall.
For patients with cancer, the journey does not end. Each mile covered in their fight against cancer is a victory. Oncology nurses are there at every bend and hill. The nurses on Team Live Positive go above and beyond their call of duty, pedaling for a cause that is close to their hearts, so that every oncology patient can be closer to cancer-free.
Angela Treanor, RN, BA, is an oncology nurse at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven in Connecticut. She is pursuing her MSN at Yale University.
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