Naval Hospital Bremerton, Washington –
On the Cross Country Recovery Road Less Traveled
By Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer -- After suffering through a serious bout of sepsis, followed by a heart attack necessitating open-heart surgery and then repair for an excruciating hernia, there was just one obvious course of recuperation for Pat Flaherty to follow.
That chosen road of recovery for Flaherty, Naval Hospital Bremerton chief information officer and wife Terri, both avid cyclists, was a lengthy labor of love. It began along the Pacific shores of Washington State and ended at Bay Harbor, Maine, on the Atlantic coast.
The Port Orchard couple bicycled 3,762 miles across North America, along winding rivers, across vast plains and up steep mountain inclines. They pedal-powered by past silent rural farmland, through picturesque small towns and amid urban cityscapes.
It was a journey of physical exertion, mental challenge and emotional relief. It was hard and taxing as well as fun and enjoyable. The journey itself – dubbed the ‘Bonus Round Tour’ - became the destination, and allowed Patrick to mend his wounds, and bring to fulfillment a lifelong dream.
Yet before even embarking on such an adventure, there were a few hurdles to clear, including convincing Patrick’s primary care manager he wasn’t intent on just spinning his wheels.
“I initially shared the vision with my PCM after sepsis. She was supportive but somewhat skeptical. After the heart attack, I inquired with my cardiologist. He was totally supportive. I met with him again just prior to the trip and he was just as supportive. He said, “My concern with patients is not that they exercise too much, but not enough,”” said Patrick.
Planning for their cross-country tour started in 2020 while recovering from sepsis. Terri assisted Patrick to setting up a home gym for cycling training and physical therapy rehabilitation. There were long rides put in sometimes as early as 4 a.m. Training paid off with both taking part in a century – 100 miles – bicycle ride, September, 2021.
Then a coronary catastrophe followed several months later in December.
“It turns out I had a bicuspid aortic valve that needed to be replaced. Eleven weeks after heart surgery Terri and I, along with other family and friends, rode the ‘Chilly Hilly,’ a 33-mile organized ride the last Sunday in February on Bainbridge Island,” related Patrick.
After completing that ride, planning began in earnest to undertake the long journey. Yet another medical crisis happened. Patrick was diagnosed with a hernia in April, 2022, which needed to be repaired.
Rather than being discouraged from the back-to-back-to-back injuries, there was just more fuel added to the fire to make the goal a reality.
“I can honestly say I never wavered on the dream. Each setback was just another thing to overcome. When putting the home gym together after sepsis, I picked up a decal to go on the wall. It reads, “There will come a day when you cannot do this, today is not that day.” After finishing my last infusion for sepsis, I saved the syringe. The plan was to zip tie it to the rack when making the ride. That is exactly what I did this summer. That syringe made it from coast-to-coast. Only one person asked about it, but I drew strength from it. It reminded me how much I had overcome and whatever I was facing was nothing compared to that. My medical team was fantastic and gave me the confidence anything was possible even after open-heart surgery,” explained Patrick.
Terri attests that Patrick’s health, as well as independent streak, have always been a focal point.
“Patrick took steps with his cardiologist and health team to monitor his condition and be cognizant of the risks. I couldn’t be more proud of him and grateful with how well he’s recovered. Being in a relationship with someone who inspires me to advance my physical health and abilities alongside him is invaluable,” stated Terri.
The hernia recovery took six weeks. Patrick and Terri, joined by daughter Ruth, departed on their tour six weeks and five days post hernia surgery. Ruth traveled with her parents as far as Montana. In 2018 Ruth had joined Patrick in bicycling 1,185 miles along the entire Pacific coastline of Washington, Oregon and California.
Heading cross country, they decided on following the American Cycling Association ‘Northern Tier’ route which took them from Washington on through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. From Escanaba, Michigan, they angled north and followed the Trans Canadian highway, reentering back into the U.S. at Cornwall, New York, before continuing on another 406 miles through Vermont and New Hampshire to finish at Bar Harbor, Maine.
If there was one constant along the way, it was that there were really no easy days.
Every day had its share of struggles. One day it would be hills, another wind, rain, cold. There were also ‘food deserts’ with limited access for nutritional needs. There was also the summer heat.
Their daily routine was kept as simple as possible. They would rise early, pack up camp, go over the planned route for that day, review the weather forecast, identify where to get food and water, and decide on a suitable stopping point. Out of their 74 days, there were just ten days with no cycling. Five days were due to weather conditions and the other handful of days were to rest. However, there were times when the best laid plans simply didn’t pan out as expected.
“We ended up riding 98 miles one day when the motel we were planning to stay at was full, causing us to backtrack 12 miles to the next nearest hotel,” said Patrick.
Terri was anointed early on with the nickname, ‘Quad Crusher.’
“Because she often pushed the pace causing my quads to burn the first five miles of the day,” quipped Patrick.
For the majority of their tour, it was all self-supported. One of their sons helped to transport their panniers as they negotiated 40 miles up a rain-swept mountain pass with 6,000 feet elevation gain.
“This was in the fifth day of riding and we were still getting into condition. Other than that, we were entirely self-supported,” related Patrick.
The tour allowed them both to recharge and revitalize, one mile at a time.
“It was rejuvenating but not in the immediate way that you might think. There were nights that were dark, wet, and discouraging. But the power that I felt from getting up that next day and continuing on is something I will carry with me forever,” shared Terri.
The long hours of solitary riding were interspersed with occasional poignant moments with others along the way.
“Sharing inspired others to pursue their dreams. This happened early at a coffee shop in Anacortes, Washington. I was sharing the dream with the person in front of me and the person behind started to cry. They had a dream that was buried and fading. Hearing my story touched them in a way I didn't anticipate. On the last day, I asked a bystander to take our picture and after hearing our story, they too were inspired. In between there were many other stories just like these,” said Patrick, adding that they were grateful recipients of several random acts of kindness.
“Without exception, everyone was supportive and excited for us,” Patrick said. “People went out of their way to help us. Which included the bike mechanics that dropped what they were doing to get us back on the road and an RV park owner that let us to stay for free when there was nothing else around. We live in a beautiful country with a lot of wonderful, giving people.”
At the onset of the tour, Patrick hoped to follow through on the dream he had when growing up. Upon completion of all those cross-country miles, he accomplished that and more.
“I proved to myself that big things are still possible at 60, that there is life after sepsis and heart surgery, and to never, ever, give up on your dream,” asserted Patrick.
When asked what posed the most challenge of this unique undertaking, Patrick replied, “It would have to be getting out of my own head and sharing the vision with my boss, then asking for the time off to make it happen. It should be noted that the entire leadership team was supportive. That support included my recovery periods and then time off for the trip.”
For Terri, the tour provided a reflective connection from their early days as a young couple to their current and dynamic growth as husband and wife.
“When I was a young woman I wanted to do an extensive ride in Mexico that was over 70 miles. None of my girlfriends wanted to do the ride. I was the only one in my group with the vision to embark on that particularly journey. My parents, who had my best interest at heart, sincerely asked for me to find somebody to ride with and I continued to look for someone to join me. One of my friends said there was a young man just as ambitious with a similar vision. I took the opportunity since I really wanted to do the ride. That is how my respect and romance with Patrick started. We did the ride. Not only once, but annually for the next four years. One of the things I admired about Patrick was his ability to dream. He spoke of a ride across the country. Something, I hadn’t even considered yet. Inspired by his vision, it’s something that we carried with us through eight kids and 38 years of marriage. To know that we aged together to be physically and emotionally capable of accomplishing this journey after a full life together is incredibly empowering,” stated Terri.
The future remains in flux for them both. Although Patrick says they’re still figuring out what’s next, there are plans afoot.
“There’s a 10k run as part of marathon training Terri and I will be doing together coming up. I have some time to develop a plan while I accrue a leave balance again,” Patrick shared.