Rider Profile: Dr. Kathleen O’Leary

Dr. Kathleen O’Leary has many accomplishments to her name — even rising through the ranks over her nearly 30-year career at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. But, in June 2023, she achieved a different kind of goal — one that felt almost impossible a few months prior due to a life-altering stroke. With the support of her husband Mike Collins, Dr. O’Leary crossed the finish line at Ride for Roswell. Together, they rode 34 miles.

Connection to Roswell Park

Dr. O’Leary began her career at Roswell Park back in 1992. She worked her way up to being the Chief of Surgical Anesthesia in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine.

“I loved every minute of it,” she explained.

She also got involved outside of the clinical setting by participating in Ride for Roswell.

“I love cycling and I love the message that the Ride gave, that it was such a community event, and it was such a celebration of survivors and hope, so that was very appealing to me.”

However, both her career at Roswell Park and her passion for cycling would be put on pause sooner than planned.

Dr. O'Leary at Ride for Roswell

Road to recovery

“In 2019, I had a stroke that resulted in my becoming paralyzed on the left side of my body, and because of that, I had to stop my work as an anesthesiologist. Honestly, I thought I would never get back on a bike again and be able to cycle.”

But Dr. O’Leary pushed every day to relearn, rebuild and adapt.

“Part of what I’ve been going through is trying to regain some normalcy in my life.”

And in the pursuit of normalcy, Dr. O’Leary and her husband purchased a tandem bike in October 2022.

“The bike is totally modified on the left side to hold my foot on the pedal and keep my leg in position. All the steering and the majority of the work is done by my husband.”

As husband and wife, they decided their goal would be to ride in Ride for Roswell. They aimed high — and registered for the 34-mile route.

Dr. O'Leary at Pathways Park

Fundraising

While Dr. O’Leary had participated in Ride for Roswell many times, this was the first year she and her husband made fundraising a top priority. They utilized the Ride for Roswell app and shared their story on social media.

“Every person riding in the Ride has so many stories that are cancer related. Mine is cancer related by virtue of my job and the wonderful patients I’ve cared for who inspire me. For me, telling the story about my stroke and my determination to get back on the road, I think that really hit home for a lot of people.”

Dr. O’Leary says the response was filled with support and encouragement. They received donations even from people who they had never met.

“I set a goal of $1,500. I couldn’t really imagine that I would achieve that. In the end, it was over $7,600.”

Ride Weekend

That fundraising amount made them members of the Extra Mile Club, meaning they were invited to be a part of the Peloton. Alongside 175 other riders, Dr. O’Leary and her husband traveled on their tandem bike through the pouring rain from Roswell Park’s campus all the way to the University at Buffalo, where Ride for Roswell is held.

“Working at Roswell Park, I had seen the Peloton take off every year. It’s such an emotional event. When the riders all hold their cards up so that patients can see it, it’s absolutely tear-jerking. So, to be a part of that was very special this year.”

When Ride Day finally arrived, they were prepared to take on their 34-mile trek — a goal they had been working toward for months. Their photos from the finish line tell a story of teamwork and triumph in the face of adversity.

“It was just wonderful. It was absolutely wonderful just to feel that sense of accomplishment.”

Dr. O’Leary’s message

Already, Dr. O’Leary is planning to return to the Ride in 2024. Her message to others who are considering getting involved:

“Everybody’s looking for the cure to cancer. And the cure doesn’t come without money for research. You don’t have to be a pro cyclist to be in the Ride. There is a distance for everybody.”

Dr. Kathleen O'Leary and her husband Mike Collins at Ride for Roswell.

For now, Dr. O’Leary says she’s constantly working hard to get stronger and regain function in her left arm, but if her experience with Ride for Roswell has taught her anything, it’s that she won’t let her stroke get the best of her. With her husband and family by her side, the milestones of her recovery are becoming more within reach, one pedal at a time.