My name is Brynn- I am a travel nurse, an adventurer, and endlessly curious. To balance the stress of working in the hospital, I seek solace in the outdoors- hiking, rock climbing, and of course, cycling. Over the course of the pandemic however, my desire to ride my bike almost disappeared. Motivation was difficult to find and the idea of finding new routes, people to ride with, or dealing with a mechanical seemed insurmountable. While this story is about bikes, it is also just a story about me, learning to cope as a nurse in this world. It is a story that illustrates what I lost in myself and what I have come to find again, through the lens of finding my way back to the saddle. It is a story of loss, fear, and grief, but also a story of hope, growth and finding joy again. And of course, a return to the bike as a way of healing.
Chapter 1: Just Trying to get through
I stopped riding my bike when I became a travel nurse working Covid ICU units during the pandemic. I had come to cycling initially as a triathlete, but quickly fell in love with the gravel bike community close to where I lived in Northern New Hampshire. Riding bikes became where I found my people- I signed up for races because I loved the sense of camaraderie and the palpable energy that I found from them. Forget trying to win! It was a thrill merely to finish and know myself capable of going the distance.
But for three years I barely touched my bike- it languished in storage while I worked in the hospital and found newer and what felt like easier ways to be outdoors, moving my body. Ways that got me outside, but away from people, which is what I think a lot of us did. For me, it was an escape. The division in our society, the constant barrage of people not believing the accounts of what was happening in the hospitals, the seemingly endless messages of hate and fear- I stopped trusting society at large. After working long, traumatizing hours in the ICU, the only place I found peace was out on the trail, where I could still hear my own heartbeat and feel small among the trees.
It wasn’t until my father died this past spring from complications of heart surgery that I finally had the time, and the need, to pull my bike out.
Despite my best intentions over the three+ years of the pandemic and all of the grief I carried from work, from witnessing death over death of the same thing, I had not been able to motivate myself to get back on the bike. I signed up for races, thinking that that would be enough for me to get back in the saddle. It never was.
For some reason, the bike adds a layer of complication that my mind doesn’t seem to be able to get over. Give me a new place to go and I will find any random hike, at almost any distance, that I will easily get myself to and start without a second thought. That was what I did for most of the pandemic, getting myself out amongst the mountains, the trees, as far away from people as I could. This was what I became and sought out, a hiker and a hermit. Having to put my bike on my car, figure out where to put water bottles, the risk of a flat- for all of these reasons, I left my bike behind over and over again. Every excuse imaginable was reason enough to just not do it.
My father died in the same setting I work in all the time- hidden away from the rest of the world, in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the hospital, attached to a ventilator, a Christmas tree of IV medications attached to his body, all intended to keep his heart pumping, to keep him sedated, to keep his blood pressure up. To keep him alive.
When you work in the ICU, you can’t escape trying to imagine what it is like to have a loved there. I had thought about this before, wondered what I would do. My father and I had a complicated past, one filled with both love and hurt, like most people do with their parents. He struggled with depression, suicidality and alcoholism throughout his life. I was the bright spot. He often told me during my teenage years that I was the reason he hadn’t killed himself, that I was the best thing that he had ever done. Over the years of watching him dance with his demons, I found my own. It became impossible to bear both his needs and mine, and for almost a decade we did not speak much.
In February of 2020 he attempted to take his own life. I finally found him after calling the police station in the last town I knew he had resided in and they sent me to the hospital he had gone to. After a lot of difficult discussion, we committed to building a better relationship. And while he still struggled, he respected the boundaries that I had placed and I finally started to trust him again.
Within that space of time, I finally felt like I had my Dad back.
When I got the call that he was in the hospital, that he had a rare type of aneurysm in his heart and that he was scheduled for surgery in the coming days, I was grateful. I told him that we were lucky that this had been caught in time. I was away when I got that call, but I told him that I would be there, after he had surgery. I sent patients to surgery all the time- his sounded routine. I trusted that it would go well.
I never got the call. He made it out of surgery, but suffered complications soon after, ones that kept him on the breathing tube and a machine that functioned for parts of his heart that had failed. As the weeks went by, he got every complication that I watched my patients get- infections from all the invasive procedures that he required, infections that caused more of his organs to fail. I went to him not out of any feeling of obligation or sense of duty, but because I wanted to be there for him. In the face of losing him, all of the hurt he had caused, all of the misgivings I still had about our relationship fell away, and he was only my Dad who I had missed and loved for so long.
I knew that he wouldn’t want to live the way that he was going to have to after all of the complications from his illness. He still struggled with the desire to keep living after his suicide attempt. He would abhor dependency of any type and the inability to take care of himself.
While I am a nurse, I am also a death doula, and working at the bedside of the dying for years has given me the ability to sense when it was near. I waited for two weeks, hoping that things would change in a positive direction. I spent Father’s Day at the hospital, playing Paul Simon and decorating his room with pictures. His face was bright and when I told him stories, he became emotional, conveying through facial expressions that he knew what I was saying. When I came in the next morning, everything had changed. He raised his head off the pillow to bump my forehead, time and time again, but his face was gray, his lips purple, and he was agitated. He was telling me it was time. Through tears, I asked them to take him off the machines keeping him alive.
He died later that night.
I couldn’t work after that. Every patient signing a consent form for surgery was my father doing that for the last time. Every family member struggling with the pain of having a loved one in the hospital with uncertain prospects was me, trying to understand how this was reality. I had to stop being a nurse, the identity that had consumed me for the better part of three years.
Without work, without any idea of what to do with my time, I finally got my bike out.
It was time.