Triathlons forge nurse-patient bond

When she came to the Steins' home to be his nurse, she and Patrick quickly connected. While taking care of him, Harte would joke with Patrick, and he would laugh -- an involuntary action unimpeded by the stroke. He also communicated by blinking, which his family and nurses can translate into letters and words based on a spellboard.

"I think the humor bridged a lot of things," Harte says. "It allowed me to joke about things that might be uncomfortable. It allowed him to tease me about things, and he learned very quickly that if he teased me, I was fine. I laughed. It didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't feel disrespected. So I think we got to a trusting place through humor."

Colleen Stein calls their relationship "absolutely ridiculous," because of the love of laughter they share. Even during serious moments, she says the two will lock eyes and start to laugh.

"She is gay and married, and Patrick wrote a paper about 'I love my gay nurse,'" Colleen says. "It's the most hysterical paper you've ever read, saying they have a lot in common, that they both like women."

Harte even did a stand-up routine at a Chicago-area club at Patrick's prodding after he found out she'd done comedy.

"The only reason it came up was he asked me how I met my wife, and I said I met her doing stand-up comedy, and he burst out laughing," Harte says.

When she did the routine, Patrick was there that night, too, laughing at the jokes -- many of which were about their relationship.

The challenge

When she started working with Patrick, the 5-foot-2 Harte weighed 275 pounds. By the end of her workday, she had difficulty climbing the stairs to her bedroom. One day she was talking to Patrick about the difficulties she had to endure.

"I was complaining, just bitching, about, 'What am I going to do? I've tried everything. I've done this, la-la-la.' Just having a conversation," she says.

That's when Patrick started blinking at her. "There's so much you can do," he said.

Harte, who talked to Patrick later about it, says he meant two things.

"One is, there are 150 options for losing weight out there. Just pick one and do it and shut up," she says. "And there is also so much you can do because you are healthy. You can walk, you can talk, you can swallow, you can choose what to put in your mouth.

"He didn't say this, but that was the underlying message: 'I can't do any of those things. So just shut up and set a goal and do something about it.'"

So, Harte picked out a sprint triathlon that was eight months away, figuring it would give her time to work into it. She also decided to use it as a fundraiser for Patrick, whose in-home care costs approximately $500,000 per year. When she told Patrick she was considering a triathlon, he laughed (again).

"Patrick was absolutely, completely unsupportive," Harte says. "'There's no way you will ever do it.'"

Patrick says his first thoughts when she told him about her plan were, "I hope you have good health insurance. I did not think she would ever finish."

Harte began training by walking slowly on a treadmill. Then she started riding a recumbent bike and using a stair-step machine.

"If you look at your most basic workout, that's what I did," she says.

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