Cathy Disher often tells people three angels, a sign and her two favorite Bible verses got her through her 100-mile Pelotonia ride.
The three angels were two fellow cyclists and a sheriff she encountered at just the right times along the ride when she felt tired and alone. The sign was a literal one when she thought she’d taken a wrong turn deep into her ride (though she prayed for God to assure her she was on the right path). The Bible verses—Joshua 1:9 and Proverbs 3:5-6—served as a reminder that she should be strong and courageous and to trust in the God of her heart.
Cathy isn’t a cyclist – in fact, at age 61 she hadn’t been on a bike since she was a child. But in January 2016 she committed to ride in Pelotonia 2016 in honor of a young patient she was blessed to meet through her role as a chaplain with the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU).
Robyn, who was Cathy’s motivation to ride, was 19 when she died from a very rare allergic reaction to the chemotherapy used to treat her leukemia. A dancer, a fiercely dedicated friend and bright young woman, she spent 60 days in the MICU fighting for her life. The experience had a profound effect on the entire MICU team as they supported Robyn and her family through this difficult experience. When Robyn ultimately passed, Cathy was there to comfort her family. She arranged a blessing for the room after her death and, later – at the request of Robyn’s parents – Cathy officiated Robyn’s celebration of life ceremony.
Initially Cathy planned to ride 50 miles in Pelotonia. She recalls: “Robyn and her family had become like my own my family. They gave me courage to commit – to take a leap of faith and honor Robyn’s memory.”
So Cathy continued her spin training and purchased some gear: a solid but affordable bike at Bikes for All People, a $4 helmet (new in the box!) and a $3.59 pair of spin pants (both from Goodwill) then she took a deep breath and started riding outdoors … in circles around empty parking lots.
“I am not a risk-taker, and knew absolutely nothing about road biking. It was very intimidating,” she said. “Yet for me, the benefits were two-fold: it was my own best self-care physically and I became part of an amazing movement to honor and benefit so many.”
In mid-May, Cathy took her first road ride with a bike training peloton. It was a literal crash course. Just a short distance into the ride – with traffic present – she crashed hard. With her bike in disarray and her body scraped and bruised, Cathy took a deep breath, wiped away some tears and walked herself back to her car. Her peloton leader came back to check in and encouraged her to keep trying.
“The fact that he came back meant a lot! I knew my learning curve would be steeper than any hill I would come to climb. I had to face my fears and keep going,” she recalls.
“Fears loomed large, and then I’d remembered Robyn and why I chose to ride in Pelotonia. In my work as a chaplain, I meet many patients and families in their journey with their fight against cancer. Robyn and her family were on such a journey; they opened their hearts and their life with me. Robyn's courageous spirit and dance for life gave me the fortitude to do my part to support cancer research for the benefit of others.”
A few weeks later – with a newly fixed bike – Cathy took her second ride, this time mostly on a bike trail with a group of Ohio State colleagues, including MICU nurse manager Dan Thorward, a two-time Pelotonia rider, who had been encouraging her from day one.
“Dan was so kind. He coached me through the ride and stayed with me the entire 60 miles even though he could have easily left me in his dust.”
The ride convinced her she shouldn’t give up and Dan encouraged her to consider riding 100 miles, which would require more training and committing to raise more money.
Cathy began marketing her homemade buckeyes to friends and colleagues as her primary Pelotonia fundraiser. John Byrd, MD, and his wife, Laura – who is a chaplain resident at Ohio State – bought 55 bags of four buckeyes to give to his clinical staff. That was just the start of hundreds of buckeyes Cathy sold. Whenever it made sense, Cathy shared why she was riding in Pelotonia and why she was moved to ride in Robyn’s honor.
Support flowed in and before she knew it, Cathy had raised more than $4,500 including an unusual gift from Robyn’s family: $1,114. The donation amount was the same as Robyn’s room number and one emblazoned into her family memory forever.
“I was so humbled by the generosity of family and friends, colleagues around me – it was such an awesome tribute to Robyn’s memory.” As support grew, so did Cathy’s training – on trails, various roads with small and large groups alike. She says: “I took every opportunity to train, get stronger and become comfortable with riding.
By mid-July Cathy was all in for her first century ride – as she saw it, she had no reason not to try. When Cathy crossed the finish line at Gambier, Robyn’s parents were there to meet her.
“No parent ever wants to be faced with the decision to pull life support from a child. The entire MICU medical team dealt with the situation with exceptional finesse, allowing us to deal with the reality of the situation with dignity and respect. It was clear to us that the entire team wanted to stick with us until the very end – they treated so much more than the body, they cared about our daughter and us on every single level,” said John and Becky Ulrich. “Cathy specifically was an enormous source of kindness for us. She gave our entire family strength in more ways that she may realize.”