Good Luck, Breakthrough, on the #RingOKerry Cycle Ride!

The Leddy’s and D’Souza’s are sending best wishes to Breakthrough Cancer Research! Breakthrough is one of many teams cycling around the Ring of Kerry today in an effort to raise funds for local charities.

Breakthrough is the legacy of Mom’s first cousin Gerry O’Sullivan, an esteemed surgeon who founded Cork Cancer Research Centre, which is at the cutting edge of immunotherapy research in the aim to cure cancer. Gerry passed away in 2012 but his legacy and mission live on through CCCR and Breakthrough Cancer Research Centre, which now serves as charitable fundraising organization for the cutting edge research. Breakthrough is a family mission; Gerry’s son, Gearoíd worked for Cork Cancer Research Centre as a research scientist in the early 2000s, his other two children, Orla and Eoghan, work for Breakthrough and were part of the team today in the cycling event, and his wife Breda assists with many of the events and fund raisers as well, including the #RingOKerry cycle ride. 

We Leddy’s did a quick well wishes video in Skibbereen…a bit of a jumble at first but in the end we got down the all-as-one cheer!!  We were sending our love to our family, and our best wishes to the entire Breakthrough team!

We later visited a memorial to Gerry in Skibbereen – it is in progress, a life-size bronze statue of Gerry is still to be added to an 8-ton stone that currently sits in the middle of the park – but it was amazing to visit and see what is planned. What a testament to Gerry and his legacy. The planned memorial includes a large green/open-space park with the bronze statue in the center. The statue will be surrounded with stones in the ground engraved with quotes that speak to Gerry’s memory and impact on the world.

One stone contains a quote from James Watson, one of the co-founders of DNA. Watson said of Gerry:

“He was so unique standing strong above those who worshipped his first surgical skills and then his determination to move from treating, to truly curing cancer.” – James Watson, Nobel Laureate & co-founder of DNA.

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My Marathon Thank You

By any serious runner’s forecast, I was not supposed to finish the Marathon on November 3rd.  I joined my charity team late, which forced me to play-catch-up to the 18-week training plan. My two kids – aged 2 and 3 – still wake up most nights which left me exhausted for the Saturday morning “long runs” up and down the Hudson waterfront.  By late October, my longest training run had been only 13 miles.

But sometimes we are called to see the glass half-full.

Team “Gerry O” in Brooklyn before the Marathon started.

I was running with family, including my cousins, Orla, Gearoid, and Eoghan, and their friends, many of whom traveled from Ireland for the Marathon.  None of us had run a Marathon before, which gave us all a shared sense of impending doom about the 26.2 mile trek through NYC.  But we had a purpose: we were running in memory of Gerry O’Sullivan – father to my cousins and founder of Cork Cancer Research Centre – and raising money for Breakthrough Cancer Research, the fundraising body for CCRC.  Plus, all of us had raised thousands of dollars for Breakthrough Cancer Research; family and friends had parted with hard-earned money and lent us warm words of support.  How could we not at least try?

On the day of the Marathon I decided, as many runners do, to write my name on the front of my shirt in big, bold letters so the crowds could cheer me on as I ran.  Using fabric-grade velcro, I affixed a strip of white fabric with “BRIGID” written across it.  Running from the foot of the Verrazano Bridge into the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn, listening to ground-thumping dance music from speakers stationed in driveways and smelling barbecued chicken and burgers wafting through the air, I felt like a star.  It was thrilling to hear, in every accent imaginable, “Go Brigid!” and “You can do it!”

But at Mile 3, I got down to business.

Me at mile 3 in Brooklyn, just after switching the name on my shirt to “CLAUDIA”

As I was heading into Bay Ridge, I slowed down and pulled the white fabric labeled “BRIGID” off my chest and replaced it with a new strip labeled “CLAUDIA.”  For the next six miles – through Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill and Clinton Hill – I was running for Claudia Commo, a nurse I worked with in 1998-99 while serving as a Jesuit Volunteer at Omega House in Houston, Texas.

Brooklynites cheering for “CLAUDIA!!!”

Claudia was a pioneer in AIDS hospice work in Houston in the 1990s; she was kind and soft-spoken, with a self-deprecating sense of humor but a steely resolve that shone through when she had to intake residents who were still detoxing from crack or heroin.  I had not seen Claudia in over ten years, but I felt her loss when I learned this past July that she had died after a long battle of cancer.  Claudia was 100% southern – with a thick Texan accent – so I thought it would be cool to run her name through the heart of Brooklyn, past cheering crowds, block parties, and stoops packed with young urbanites holding home-made signs to cheer us all on.  It was awesome to hear “Go Claudia!” and “Vamos, Clow-dia!” the entire way.

I ran with “AUNT B” through Queens, where my Aunt Barbara was born and raised.

In Williamsburg I replaced my strip of fabric and ran miles 10 through 16 with “AUNT B” across my chest.  Aunt Barbara was my father’s sister and one of my favorite adults as a kid; she stuffed M&Ms and cans of Coke into small paper bags when we left her house for the long car ride home, and she made outings to the video rental store feel like a trip to Disney World.  She died on October 20, 2011 after a long battle with cancer.  I miss her terribly and wish my kids could have known her, which is why each cheer of her name through Brooklyn and Queens felt like a prayer to the Heavens.

Gerry O’Sullivan, founder of Cork Cancer Research Centre and my mom’s cousin.

While stretching my calves against the concrete divider on the 59th Street Bridge, I did a final swap of white fabric, peeling the velcro back to replace “AUNT B” with “GERRY O”. Gerry was my mother’s first cousin and “the outstanding Irish surgeon of his generation” according to The Irish Times.  His children, Orla and Eoghan, are now instrumental in leading “Breakthrough Cancer Research,” a fundraising organization in Cork that grew out of CCRC and seeks to transform laboratory breakthroughs into clinical treatments for cancer patients.  I wrote a separate blog post on Gerry here; he was the reason “Team Gerry” ran 26.2 miles on a cold November day in NYC, and that his children now carry on his legacy to fight cancer is the ultimate testament to him.

I was still smiling at Mile 24 as I entered Central Park. Tired, but smiling.

In the end, out of 50,304 finishers, I placed 47,493.  I ran consistently for six hours, 2 minutes, and 37 seconds, stopping only a few times for potty breaks and to stretch my legs.  My overall pace was 13:51 per mile; I was not fast, but I was a Finisher.  And more importantly, I helped raise over $3,600 for Breakthrough Cancer Research with the help of friends and family from all over the world, including Ireland, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Dubai, Minnesota, Nepal, Boston, Madagascar, New Jersey, New York, California, and India.  That support – from family and friends – is what propelled me through the pain, and gave me hope and inspiration despite my lackluster training.

So, to all who donated to my run, I have just a few final parting words:  I did not run the Marathon…WE ran the Marathon.  I did not raise over $3,600 money for Breakthrough Cancer Research…WE raised those funds.  And finally, I did not give meaning to Breakthrough’s vision “There is hope and that hope is in research”…WE gave meaning to that vision together.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

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A very special thank you to EVERYONE who donated to Breakthrough Cancer Research to support my 2013 NYC Marathon run.  And…if you did not yet donate, you still can – please visit my JustGiving page here.  THERE IS HOPE…AND THAT HOPE IS IN RESEARCH.

 

Running to Breakthrough Cancer for…Gerry O.

I am training for the ING 2013 NYC Marathon to help raise money for Breakthrough Cancer Research.  

Dr. Gerald O’Sullivan was many things in life.

The Irish Medical Times called him “the outstanding Irish surgeon of his generation” and “an Irish Giant.”  His medical peers in Ireland elected him President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2006.  He lived and worked in Chicago, Canada, and even Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war.  He served as mentor of the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa.  He was an Honorary Fellow in the American College of Surgeons, a prestigious award since it is limited to only 100 living surgeons worldwide at any time.  He was loved by those he worked with, as evidenced in a touching YouTube video created after he died.  But perhaps most notably, Gerry founded Cork Cancer Research Centre in the 1990s, a world-class research organization driven to improve treatment and prognoses for the most devastating cancers.

He was a premier medical doctor in Ireland and beyond, but to me, my parents, my brothers and sister, and my cousins here in America, he was just Gerry.  Gerry, my mother’s first cousin, a man who took time out of his hectic schedule to visit us in New Jersey while on work travel to the U.S., his booming voice and lilting brogue filling our entry foyer when he arrived.  Gerry, the crazy-smart cousin who loved American history so much that he could recite every president and vice president going back to George Washington.  Gerry, whose sense of humor tickled you to your core, like when he surprise-crashed a family party in suburban Pennsylvania (where his daughter was living) disguised as a hobo…ambling down the quiet, meticulously manicured street wearing a mask, an old trench coat, a ratty old hat, and carrying a stick with a bag tied around one end of it…he had the entire party in stitches.  Gerry, who could talk and talk and talk over multiple pots of tea about topics as wide-ranging as cricket and hurling to current affairs, especially U.S. politics.

Gerry died on February 12, 2012.  He succumbed to multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow.  It was a huge loss, both personally for our family but also for the community of medical professionals dedicated to eradicating cancer.  Fortunately, his legacy lives on through his family and Breakthrough Cancer Research, the new fundraising arm of Cork Cancer Research Centre.  Breakthrough Cancer Research collaborates with cancer organizations worldwide, from Sweden, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia, Scotland, as well as here in the U.S., including Harvard Medical School.

Cancer is horrific, cancer is cruel, and cancer is seemingly ubiquitous.  But cancer can be beaten.   As it says on Breakthrough Cancer Research’s websiteThere is hope, and that hope is in research.

You can donate easily and quickly by visiting my marathon fundraising site on JustGiving.com.  Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell your details or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to Breakthrough Cancer Research. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Thank you.

The Jeans Whore

As I dig deep to train for the 2013 NYC Marathon, I am reminded of a time when I was known as “the jeans whore.”

I was in high school and had a part-time sales job at Banana Republic, one of many stores at an upscale mall in Short Hills, New Jersey.  My job included greeting customers with a smile at the front door and explaining the difference between a weave and a knit.   I walked into the back stockroom one afternoon to find my manager sorting through boxes of fall merchandise, the pungent scents of packed leather and denim still fresh. My manager smiled as she held out one of the new fall items, a beautiful lambskin bomber jacket priced at $300.  It was gorgeous, yet out of my price range.  But then she explained an upcoming back-to-school sales contest whereby a salesperson would receive three dollars for every pair of denim jeans sold.  “You can do it,” she said. “Buy the jacket with contest money!”

I had my challenges.  In hindsight, I was not the ideal retail sales associate.  First, I felt awkward approaching customers who appeared to be browsing, and instead waited for them to ask me for help.  I preferred to work the cash register, finding comfort behind the repetitive motions of clicking the register pad, bagging the merchandise, and making small talk with someone who was experiencing the high of a new purchase.  But most of all, I was a high school student who worked minimal hours so I had a serious time constraint in which to sell a boatload of denim jeans.

When the contest began about a week later, I jumped in head first.  I offered to take weekend shifts from co-workers, increasing my time with the piles of denim stacked floor to ceiling in the back of the store.  I threw my feelings of awkwardness to the wind and started to approach every customer who showed the slightest whiff of interest in denim. If a customer was buying a blouse, I suggested she complete the outfit and purchase a pair of jeans as well.  If a customer wanted a belt, I offered him the right shade of washed denim to match the brown leather and silver buckle.  If a customer walked by that wall of denim, I was in her face, smiling, giving her my name, telling her I was there to help. I owned that wall of denim.  Before long, my co-workers, all older than me by several years and viewing me like a kid sister, jokingly started calling me “the jeans whore.”

The contest lasted ten days and by the end, I had sold sixty-seven pairs of jeans, making me the contest winner in the entire Northeast region and the third highest seller of denim in the entire company.  I also received a bonus for my performance.  Several weeks later, the jacket hung in my closet, entirely paid for with contest money.

I learned something valuable with all those jeans I sold: with a clear goal and sufficient inspiration and support, you can at least try.  Only then do you have a shot at succeeding.  It is with this attitude that I climb onto the treadmill most mornings before the kids wake up, trying to build my endurance for November 3rd.  Will I make it?  I don’t know.  But I sure am going to try.

And yes, I still own the jacket.

I am running the ING 2013 NYC Marathon on November 3rd in memory of my cousin, Gerry O’Sullivan, and to raise money for Breakthrough Cancer Research.  There is hope, and that hope is in research.  Please visit my JustGiving page here if you would like to learn more.

Gay Marriage: It’s About Us All

If justice is good for one, then shouldn’t it be good for all?

I recently dined with the kids – sans husband who was stuck at work – at a French bistro around the corner from our home.   It was a balmy spring night, the dining patio full of patrons enjoying mussels, escargot, and pan-seared steaks.   As I settled the kids into their chairs and tore up chunks of bread for them to eat, I heard a man’s voice behind me.   “Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t know how you do it with two.  We just have the one and it seems impossible at times.” I smiled at him and his eighteen month old son sitting in a high chair, giggling adorably under a floppy green hat.  “No different from you,” I said.  A few minutes later the man’s partner – another man – returned to the table.  The three of us talked about their impending move to Maplewood, a popular Manhattan suburb, about their fear of isolation from the city, about their excitement of having a big backyard.  The conversation was utterly mundane, yet enjoyable because we were on the same plane, finding so much in common in the space of a few minutes.

Every child is born into a universe of possibility.  He knows only one truth at the outset: the love of his parents.  Yet he is also born into an imperfect culture.  The worst examples of our own imperfections are stunning upon reflection.  Our nation’s forefathers put pen to paper with the three-fifths compromise, which effectively declared a black man equal to three fifths of a white man.  Volumes could be written by people more scholarly than I about who was to blame, why the forefathers proceeded with a compromise to allow slavery, and so on; but the simple truth is this: it was evil, and they proactively permitted it in our Constitution.  It would require a civil war and the thirteenth amendment to eradicate this evil from our historical record, yet the imperfection would persist.  In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man legally married in Washington D.C., but living in Virginia, were banished from Virginia under threat of jail time for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws.  The Lovings sued Virginia; it would take eight years, but in 1967 the Supreme Court decreed – by unanimous decision – that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Yes, we live in an imperfect culture…but if history teaches us anything, it is this: we do not have to sit quietly about it.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996; it is less than one page long yet its impact is devastatingly widespread; it denies the right to marry – and myriad benefits therein under federal law – to gay couples.  Their children suffer as a result. But DOMA is about more than gay families.  DOMA degrades us a society.   It is written with the same evil intention employed by those who would hold that certain men are only worth three-fifths of other men.  It dumps us into the same historical dustpan of those who would hold that a dark-skinned woman married to a white-skinned man is illegal and immoral. DOMA is a stain upon our national character.

Beyond DOMA, as a lifelong New Jerseyan, I think it is shameful that New Jersey does not yet occupy the moral high ground currently owned by Connecticut, New York, Washington, Maine, Vermont, and Iowa, among others, in legalizing gay marriage.  And yet we call ourselves a progressive state?

The two men I shared a drink and conversation with last week were good fathers who clearly loved their son. I safely assume they pay federal and state taxes and are law-abiding citizens.  They accordingly deserve the benefits and rights that my husband and I enjoy.  That they are gay should make no difference. That they are human beings should be all that matters.  Dignity is not relative.

Justice…we can embrace it or we can deny it.  But the real question is this: do we want our kids looking up at what we had the courage to embrace, or down at the justice that we chose to deny?

To learn more about the efforts to legalize gay marriage in NJ, please visit Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest civil rights organization comprised of 125,000 members, about half of whom are from outside the LGBT community.

The Best Gift on Mother’s Day

What’s the best gift on Mother’s Day?  Every mom may have a different answer to this, but here’s mine: healthy children.  Not just my own, but as many healthy children all around the world that we, as a giving, loving, society can afford.

Six hours after my first child was born, one of the maternity ward nurses woke my husband and me in the middle of the night.   My husband was asleep on a daybed under the window and I was resting fitfully.  Our exhilaration at being new parents was tempered by bone-deep exhaustion from the afternoon’s events; my water had broken unexpectedly at home so we rushed to the hospital forty minutes away where I had an emergency C-section.

Hours later, the nurse was in our room.  “We want to send your baby up to the NICU.”

“What’s wrong?”  we asked, frozen with fear.

“Your daughter had an apnea episode.  She didn’t breathe for about twenty seconds and her lips turned blue. We could take a chance and see if she improves, but we’d rather send her upstairs and ensure she is more closely monitored.”

We had to wait an hour before we could visit her in the NICU.  We were buzzed in and passed babies inside incubators, babies with tubes inserted into their abdomens, babies who looked as if they weighed just two or three pounds.  At the end of the hall, we found our daughter wrapped in a receiving blanket under heat lamps and sucking on a green pacifier, her nickel-sized palm wrapped in a heartbeat monitor strap while machines above her beeped and flashed with mechanical precision.  I immediately burst into tears; the site of our tiny six-pound baby hooked up to medical equipment was jarring.  As a parent, it is absolutely awful to feel so out of control.  We spent the next three days in the NICU as doctors monitored her breathing to ensure her oxygen levels were normal.  In the end she was cleared to leave the hospital on time; we considered ourselves extremely fortunate, particularly after passing the other babies who remained hooked to ventilators and feeding tubes.  Our daughter is now a thriving three year old.  What she experienced as a newborn was frightening beyond measure, but we were fortunate, extremely fortunate, to have health insurance and access to quality healthcare.  As a mother, I do not for one second take my children’s health for granted.

It is because of this experience that I passionately support a new organization called Kangu.  Kangu is meant to evoke the Kangaroo, an animal whose young are carried safely, protectively, in the mother’s pouch.  Kangu uses “crowdfunding,” a type of giving that enables individuals to easily co-fund a cause they believe in.  Kangu’s cause is healthcare for mothers who might otherwise not be able to afford it.  Kangu mamas are currently living in places like Nepal, India, and Uganda.  I recently helped fund healthcare services for a mom named Fathima in Hyderabad, India; it was the best investment I’ve made all year. Kangu’s mission is a beautiful, empowering concept; small contributions, when pooled together, can yield disproportionately huge benefits for moms in real need.  A few dollars to you and me can be life-changing for a child gulping in his first breath of air.

So, what’s the best gift on Mother’s Day?  Flowers are beautiful, but their colors eventually fade.  Chocolates are delicious, but in the end you’re left with crinkled wrappers and a healthy dose of Monday morning guilt.  But a donation to Kangu?  That is a gift that will benefit a child in need for many, many years to come.   And on Mother’s Day, that is the best gift any mom could ask for.

To learn more about Kangu, please visit www.kangu.org.