Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Person of the Week

Kathy Farrelly Ready to Ride as Team Captain for Closer to Free

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Kathy Farrelly is captain of the Two Wheels for Hope/Smilow North Haven Closer to Free team and will ride in honor of her mom among others. Photo courtesy of Kathy Farrelly

Kathy Farrelly is captain of the Two Wheels for Hope/Smilow North Haven Closer to Free team and will ride in honor of her mom among others. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Farrelly)

Kathy Farrelly knew she wanted to be a nurse from a young age. She was inspired by the stories her grandmother told about the people she took care of in her days as a nurse’s aid. Kathy has now been an R.N. for the past 36 years and while she has enjoyed the different posts she has had, she found her true calling six years ago.

In the midst of Kathy’s mom’s 13-year battle with stage IV ovarian cancer, Kathy came to a crossroads in her career. She had previously worked in home infusions due to the flexible schedule that allowed her to take care of her son, Rob, who is now a high school senior, when he was young.

“Six years ago I was deciding between two jobs at Yale with one being with Smilow [Cancer Hospital Care Center in North Haven] and I wasn’t sure what to do,” says Kathy, who has lived in North Haven for the last 13 years. “My best friend [Karen Burke], who knows me better than I know myself, said, ‘That’s where you belong,’ and she was right. This is where I’m mean to be.”

Kathy still works with infusions, administering chemotherapy to patients. As soon as Kathy started her new role, she knew she found her true calling. She not only took care of patients, but also continued to help care for her mom, June Virzi, until her passing in September 2020.

In getting to know her coworkers, she found that many of them had similar stories about being inspired by the care received by a loved one through their battle with cancer. Kathy is honored to not only work with her coworkers, but to be able to help patients as well despite the challenges of the job.

“From doctors to techs to secretaries, everyone is so compassionate and kind and we treat every patient with dignity, like they’re our family members so when we lose them, we are broken-hearted, too,” says Kathy. “People will ask me, ‘How can you work there? It seems so sad,’ but how could I not? After 31 years in nursing, I found the mecca.”

Kathy soon found out that the dedication of those working at Smilow North Haven goes beyond working hours. She began to hear talk of the Closer to Free ride, which is a bike ride fundraiser that donates 100 percent of proceeds to patient care and research at Smilow.

Kathy was intrigued by the “hubbub” surrounding the ride. Five years ago, one of Kathy’s best friends, Amee Lunn, had asked her to donate to her ride, but Kathy and her sister, Margie Stickles, decided to join the team instead.

When joining, riders can choose from several distances—10 miles, 25 miles, 62.5 miles, or 100 miles—and though she hadn’t cycled in some time, Kathy opted to go for 62.5 miles.

The next year, the original team didn’t ride so Kathy took over as team captain and merged the team with the Smilow North Haven team. The team continued to participate over the next several years, enjoying the event that started and finished at Yale Bowl. No matter what distance riders choose, the route passes Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven along the way.

“We stop at the main campus and there are patients out there and we get off our bikes and salute them. It gets me every year,” says Kathy through tears. “Along the routes, there are people with signs that say things like ‘Smilow saved my life’ and other tributes along the way. Until you see those people and how many lives it’s touched, you can’t wrap your head around it.”

In addition to being inspired by the patients, signs, and spectators, Kathy has also been inspired by her fellow riders. Over the years, she has gotten to know several other riders and they share stories. Each Closer to Free bib says, ‘I Ride Closer to Free for…’ and riders share stories of their loved ones, which Kathy says is “very healing.”

Kathy has always included “Mom” in a heart on her bib and also wears a teal helmet in honor of ovarian cancer and butterfly tattoos in honor of one of her mom’s favorite things.

She also includes her Smilow patients. With so many people affected by cancer, Kathy needed another way to pay tribute to even more people so she began to write people’s names on ribbons that she ties to her helmet.

“As I ride, their names are flying through the breeze and I can think of them and honor them as I ride,” says Kathy, who notes that those donating to her team can share a name for her to add to her ribbons. “The names on my ribbons include friends and family. There are people who have passed away and people who are still fighting.”

Kathy’s sister has joined her in wearing streaming ribbons from her helmet as well. The team has also grown over the years to include more family members. Michael Civitello and Lunn have been with the team from the start and after the first year, Kathy’s husband, Thomas Farrelly, and brother-in-law, Jeff Stickles, joined. Due to his baseball schedule, the Farrellys’ son, Rob, doesn’t do the ride, though he does donate and train with them.

When COVID struck, the Closer to Free ride moved to a virtual format where participants mapped out their own routes. Civitello, who is Kathy’s unofficial co-captain, was in charge of creating their route. The 2020 ride took on an even deeper meaning for Kathy and her family as her mother passed away in August, just a month before the ride.

“He has also lost people to cancer and he arranged our ride in Fairfield and Westport, including riding by a church,” says Kathy. “My family all came to different stops to cheer for us. For the first ride after my mom passed away, it was perfect.”

Despite the challenges of 2020, the team still raised $4,000.

Kathy is hoping to top that this year and Team Two Wheels for Hope/Smilow North Haven is preparing for the 2021 event, which is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 11, though it has not yet been determined if it will be live or virtual.

Civitello is organizing monthly rides so they team can train. Lunn’s cousin, Niyati Vakil, also joined the team. Kathy is also hoping to add more riders to her team and notes that anyone interested can message her through Facebook where she is listed as Kathy Virzi Farrelly.

This year, Closer to Free is asking each rider to raise $250, a lower amount than in years prior to COVID. Kathy says that because so many people have been affected by cancer, she has found that people have always been “incredibly generous.” As team captain, she is also ready to help anyone who is concerned with the fundraising goal.

“Even though you’re on my team, you can bike whatever distance you want. I just recommend that everybody try it once,” says Kathy. “In past years, we’ve had almost 20 on the team and I’d love to get 25 to 30 on our team this year.

“With Closer to Free, 100 percent of proceeds goes to patients and research—you can’t ask for a better fundraiser,” adds Kathy. “It stays local to people I care for. It’s a no-brainer for me. I’m so happy to jump on my bike to do this. It’s healing and it means a lot to know we’re helping other people. My mom would be very happy.”

To donate, visit www.rideclosertofree.org and search for “Kathy Virzi Farrelly” or “Two Wheels for Hope/Smilow North Haven.”


Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .

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