Employees and residents with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) banded together to pedal across the state of Texas in support of a colleague affected by a chronic illness.
A dozen people tied to McGovern Medical School at UTHealth’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery rode 155 miles from Houston to Austin in April as part of the BP MS 150 race. Their “Team Fly like a Byrd” jerseys were a nod to the Byrd family: adult reconstructive orthopedic fellow Zack Byrd, and his wife, Annie, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in February 2018.
The team also raised nearly $19,000 for the National MS Society.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive central nervous system disorder that affects how brain neurons communicate with each other, and how the brain communicates with the body. The disease can affect speech, memory, and muscle movements.
The journey to the MS 150 race began at a pizza shop. In the wake of the diagnosis, the couple gathered with friends and coworkers at a Houston restaurant for fellowship and support. There, Byrd’s friend Nathan Rogers, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident at the medical school, suggested they ride in the race the following year.
Both confess they didn’t think it would happen. Keeping up with a residency work schedule and family life is difficult enough without squeezing in time to train for a major race.
“I don’t know if I believed myself, but all of us made it happen. We are all busy, but we found a way, and we did it,” Rogers said.
All of a sudden, it seemed to Byrd, a team started forming in the winter. Orthopedic doctors and residents helped recruit riders and solicit donations, including jerseys donated by the department.
Neither Rogers nor Byrd had ridden more than 25 miles before the race, but quickly started training for the event. Byrd traded in his mountain bike for a road bike at the end of January. On the day of the race, the longest ride he had ever completed was 40 miles.
“I didn’t know if I could finish the race; 150 miles seemed daunting,” Byrd said. “I’m proud of myself and my ability to persevere. I was able to set my mind to it and complete it. I think it’s a good metaphor for what Annie is going through. She’s dealing with this disease. So far, she has not been dramatically affected by it, but she’s dealing with it mentally and physically, while still being a mom and a professional. She’s overcoming those odds, just like all the 9,000 people that enter that race do.”
Their friends said seeing people affected by MS helped them persevere as they traveled from Houston’s flat landscape into the hill country of Austin.
“One of the most impactful things for me was seeing people on the side of the road with signs that read, ‘I have MS. Thank you for riding,’” Rogers said. “It was incredible. No matter how tired you were, you wanted to push through and keep going. You realize you’re not doing it for you, you’re doing it to help others.”
“I remember seeing people on recumbent bikes, and some handcycles, which are powered by their arms,” Byrd said. “There were all kinds of bicycle contraptions people were using to participate. It was uplifting. It gave me a good feeling about what people can do together, and what they can accomplish if they set their mind to it.”
Zach Byrd said Annie was the spark for the group to participate in the race, but each team member had an unforgettable experience during it.
“It was amazing to be a part of something that was that substantial,” Byrd said. “The MS 150 is a big production. It raised $245 million this year. I try to keep the perspective that it’s about the people with MS. Annie is the inspiration behind what we have done, but the team ended up turning into something larger, and there was certainly a lot of comradery behind it. This was unforgettable, and will be with me forever.”
Byrd has accepted a clinical position, and will soon be moving back to his home state of Ohio, but said it wouldn’t take too much convincing for a return trip to Texas to participate in the event. Team Fly Like a Byrd will soar again next year.