Triathlons forge nurse-patient bond

Mary Jo HarteCourtesy Mary Jo Harte

As a triathlete, Mary Jo Harte is a great comedian.

She's no Ironwoman. She'll never conquer Kona. She is 55, overweight and, until recently, hadn't been able to jump. When she tried, gravity just said, "No."

Three years ago, when she told her friend Patrick Stein that she'd decided to do a sprint triathlon in Chicago, he burst into laughter. When she texted him that summer 2012 to say she was riding her bike to his house, his response was, "OK, great. I'll keep my eye out for the ambulance on the side of the road."

She poked fun at herself, too. When she first tried to put on a sports bra, she wrote it was like losing a wrestling match with "a pink straitjacket." Yet Harte completed the Life Time Tri Chicago Triathlon that year.

She was 1,032nd out of 1,033 women, and it took her 4 hours, 10 minutes, 19 seconds to complete the 750-meter swim, 24.5K bike and 5K run -- almost three hours after the winning woman. Her swim was more like a paddle, she had to stop often on the bike, and there was no running on the run. Her goal was simply to finish without medical aid.

"That was like it, period," she says. "I wanted to finish it and hoped they wouldn't be closing it down before I crossed the finish line."

Last year she came back for more, finishing in 3:41:59. On Sunday (Aug. 24), she'll do the race again, with a goal of 3½ hours. Her trainer, JP Bordeleau, believes that's doable. Even if she falls short, he says she's an inspiration to others.

"I'm so proud of her," he says. "I mean, she has every excuse not to do it. She was almost 300 pounds. It's easy for her to say, 'I can't do it.' That to me is more motivating than watching an elite athlete, an Olympian."

Harte, however, has her own inspiration, and it's no joke.

"My story around this is not fascinating for very long," she says. "It's really Patrick's story."

The athlete and the nurse

Patrick Stein was an athletic kid. Though he'd had a brain aneurysm while in elementary school, he was cleared for noncontact sports. He excelled at baseball and swimming. By his senior year at Loyola Academy north of Chicago, he was captain of the swim and water polo teams. He was an intense competitor and a funny guy who knew how to motivate his teammates.

"He's one of the most competitive people I've ever met," says his mom, Colleen Stein. "He challenges everyone around him."

But Patrick went to bed one night that senior year and woke up the next morning unable to move. A massive stroke left him paralyzed. He couldn't speak or even swallow. He could only move his eyes. His mind remained unaffected. Suddenly, the bright, competitive 18-year-old was trapped inside his body.

The name for his condition: Locked-in syndrome.

Patrick needed 24-hour care, including nurses and physical therapists. That's when he met Harte, who has been a nurse for 35 years. She's also dabbled in stand-up comedy and done some writing but decided years ago that nursing was her calling. She knew she couldn't stay up late trying to be "the next Ellen DeGeneres" and still get up early to go to work the next morning.

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.

Despite her lack of fitness, she was determined to do the race because she was inspired by Patrick's spirit. He stayed upbeat, threw himself into physical training and was determined to get better. In his training, Patrick often focuses on moving his limbs. To an outsider, nothing's happening. But he always works at it.

"The only thing that's in his control is how hard he is going to try to do today the things that he can't do," she says. "And that's it. And I thought, 'Look at what I have in my life that I can control, and the choices I can make.'"

The races

For her first tri in 2012, Harte wore a navy blue T-shirt with "Just Doing It" in pink lettering. Friends and family wore matching shirts that year to cheer her on. Though she struggled, she heard the race announcers calling her name and saw the crowd cheering as she approached the finish.

"I was crying, like, 'Why are they making such a big deal about me when these Olympic athletes are flying by me?'" she says.

Patrick at the time was in Baltimore at the Kennedy Krieger Institute for therapy, but his mother was there.

"The crowd went wild for her," Colleen recalls. "I've never seen anything like it. And she is the funniest person I've ever met. She goes, 'All you have to do is be obese and they love you in this thing!'"

Harte raised $10,000 for Patrick's care in that race.

Last year, Harte was much better in the transition areas, not wasting the time she did the year before. As she neared the end of the race, she spotted Patrick, Colleen and his father, Nick, with friends and family, all wearing the "Just Doing It" shirts, this time with green lettering. She veered off course and gave Patrick a hug and kiss.

"As soon as I came up to him, he just burst out laughing," she recalls. "He was smiling. I know he [came out] for me."

As Harte then headed toward the finish, Nick pushed Patrick in his wheelchair alongside her, before Harte took over. They crossed the line together. Scott Hutmacher, regional marketing manager for Life Time Athletic Events, which put on the race, heard the cheers as they approached and watched the finish. He says it was a moment "so impromptu that it was perfect."

"I'd almost say there wasn't a dry eye in the house," he says. "It was pretty powerful."

Patrick, however, won't admit to being impressed.

"I was shocked, and I wanted to take her blood pressure," he says of the moment. "I was too concerned about her to think about crossing the finish line."

Now comes her third race, and this time Harte is training more seriously under Bordeleau, an endurance athlete and owner of Precision Multisport in Chicago who often trains elite athletes. For four months she's been lifting weights, doing resistance work and taking on various torture machines and drills.

"She's such a hoot, because I'll have her do something and she'll look at me, 'I can't do that,'" Bordeleau says. "I say, 'Try it,' and she does it, and she's, 'Oh my god, get it on video!' We've videotaped her doing so many things she thought she would never do."

Just recently, she learned to stand up on her pedals while cycling. That alone should help her time in the race. In past races, she'd have to get off the bike because she lost feeling while sitting. Now she can keep pedaling.

"I have not been able to do that because I just have not had the strength to pull my big ass up and balance myself on the pedals," she says. "This is a huge help."

Patrick, however, continues to give her a hard time. "It is still not sure she will finish safely," he says.

The little things

Sunday's race in what is now called the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon will be different, too, because Harte won't be the only one running for Patrick. About 25 others will join her, all wearing T-shirts with the logo of "All In My Head," a documentary being made by filmmaker Colleen Shaw about Patrick's story.

Last year, Harte was able to raise less than $5,000 for Patrick's cause. This year, with the help of Shaw's website and running team, the amount could be significantly greater. Harte is no longer Patrick's nurse, but she remains his friend and health advocate. Colleen Stein says her son looks up to her, and she's intensely loyal to him.

"She's such an intelligent nurse, and we go to her for so many medical things," she says. "She's a very trustworthy confidante to Patrick."

Patrick remains Harte's inspiration.

"You're never too old, you're never too fat, you're never too inactive," she says. "You can always do something. That's what he said to me. 'There's so many things you can do.'"

As she has improved, so has he. His attitude in rehab is paying off. He has regained tiny movement in an arm and hand, opening the door for him to use a computer and a motorized wheelchair. He also is relearning how to swallow.

Harte says Patrick has taught her that small improvements are life-enriching. A whole world can open up for him with a computer, and her improved fitness makes her life better. Now 35 pounds lighter, she admits "no one's going to describe me as thin."

But she takes dance classes, can jump rope, walk up stairs, stand up on her pedals and -- just maybe -- shave an hour off her triathlon time.

"There's all these small steps that I really have learned to appreciate," she says. "And with my personality, telling me to be happy with small stuff is not very motivating. I like to make a big splash. I have a big body, a big personality, and this is the lesson I needed to learn and continue to learn. Those small things change the quality of your everyday life."

Patrick, meanwhile, has a friend for life. How does he describe her?

"Good," he says. "Entertaining. Trusting. She'll be here for the long haul."

And for a third triathlon.