Nurses uplift the homeless, recovering addicts through running

She crossed the finish line.  Still breathing heavily, she grinned as a volunteer handed her the medal.  As she walked along, she noticed a familiar face in the crowd.  It was one of the guys who used to sell her drugs.  She raised her medal.  As he flashed a salute to her, she smiled, saying to herself “I’m an athlete, I’m healthy, and I’m going to keep getting better.”

It’s amazing what happens when people learn there is more to them than they ever knew, and when that realization lifts their lives.

Patti Bright, a certified registered nurse anesthetist (commonly known as a CRNA) from Virginia Beach, Va., has seen many stories like this since she started working with the homeless and recovering addicts, providing many of them the life skills common to most runners, and helping to turn their lives around.

While the difficulties these people face vary wildly, Bright sees a common thread in those who reach to her group for help.

“Most of these people have had something happen in their lives that makes them feel they can’t do it,” she explains.  “Especially the women.  Many of them have never had anyone in their lives to trust.”

Bright is part of an effort to better the lives of some of her area’s most disadvantaged groups.  She has helped homeless people and recovering drug addicts learn life skills common to most runners, and helped them turn their lives around in the process.

How it all started

It all started ten years ago at a leadership retreat.  Bright was one of many nurse anesthetists trying to find ways to promote their profession.  To that point, the group had aimed its messaging at mainly state legislators, but felt more could be done.  During a brainstorming session, Bright recalled a lecture on public relations she had attended some time before, and how creating a newsworthy message would bring interest.

But how do you make a group of nurse anesthetists newsworthy?

The group eventually decided to form a team of CRNA runners to run the Virginia Beach Half Marathon.  The event had recently been named the top half marathon in the country, and it would be a good opportunity to get the group involved.  But the question remained:  How could they make generate interest in the group?

The answer was getting the surrounding community involved.  Their organization decided to raise funds for a local charity that provides meals, clothing and medical care to the poor and homeless.  The effort didn’t end there.  The CRNAs wanted to include the people they’d be helping in the event – but how?

They settled on fielding a team of CRNA runners, as well as manning a running one of the race’s water stops with CRNAs and the homeless people they were helping.  In doing so, they guaranteed the kind of coverage they sought – a higher profile for their career field, driven by the interest created by their making a difference in their community.

The first three years of the event went well.  Local media covered the event, and the amount of support they received grew.  The water stop manned with the area’s homeless became a well-known feature of the race.  But the direction of the program would change drastically when a girl from a recovery group asked to be trained to run.

Running as a life-changer


When Melissa approached Bright about training for the race, she was in recovery for drug addiction.  She was doing well in recovery, but she still smoked, was overweight, and although she had a steady job, she was struggling to find meaningful work.  Bright saw someone who needed guidance and self-discipline to help build her self-esteem.

Bright says that many of the individuals she meets while working with the homeless and addicted have had something happen in their lives that destroyed their feeling of self-worth.  Sometimes, just the act of caring and offering help can be enough to get them started on the road to recovery.

She says “it’s just about believing in someone and being a mentor to them.”

The first order of helping is holding them accountable for training, and demanding their commitment to the training necessary to get through 13.1 miles.  She tells her runners that training happens early in the morning (usually before dawn), and unless there’s lightning or hail, the run is on.

The pre-dawn runs weren’t just to instill discipline.  Bright’s work schedule includes long hours, making the early hours the only time available for her to hit the trails.  The early runs are her way to get ready for her shift, and to her, they’re not negotiable.

“If I know I have a long shift,” Bright explained, “a long run helps me prepare for my day.  [My patients] need all of me.  It’s up to me to pay close attention.”

Melissa stuck with the training, and over that summer, she lost weight, quit smoking, and completed the Virginia Beach Rock and Roll Half Marathon.  But bigger things were on the way.

Since that race, Melissa returned to school.  Bright, who attended her college graduation, says Melissa is now working as a medical assistant in an orthopedist’s office, and is currently enrolled in a registered nurse program.

Since her turnaround, Melissa has addressed state legislators at the event’s pre-race dinner, sharing her story and offering hope to those struggling as she did.  Bright marvels at the change.

“She is just a different person – the way she carries herself,” Bright says, adding that the training rebuilt her self-esteem.  “Now, she’s confident and goal-oriented.”


When Tammy approached Bright to train to run a race, she was recovering from drug addiction, and hoping to go to school to better herself.  But at 42 years old, she couldn’t do basic math.  Reaching higher education would be a struggle.

Bright told her what she tells each of what she calls her ‘special runners’ – “If you embrace [the training], you can get addicted to the sense of well-being.”

As with Melissa and other runners Bright has trained, those that persevere learn that running helps them face challenges, and gives them the confidence they need to overcome their weaknesses and succeed.  During those early-morning sessions, Bright says she and Tammy talked about more than just running.

“We had some very frank conversations during those runs,”  Bright said.  “We talked about saving money, how to budget, how to present yourself in interviews.”

In short, they talked about the kinds of life skills Tammy needed to succeed.  Tammy persevered, and finished the race – in style.

She crossed the finish line.  Still breathing heavily, she grinned as a volunteer handed her the medal.  As she walked along, she noticed a familiar face in the crowd.  It was one of the guys who used to sell her drugs.  She raised her medal.  As he flashed a salute to her, she smiled, saying to herself “I’m an athlete, I’m healthy, and I’m going to keep getting better.”

Since then, Tammy has gotten better.  Once unable to handle basic multiplication, she is now going to community college, and has a new outlook on life.

Bright still marvels at the power people have to change, and that running has the power to help them do it.

“I love my job.  I love what I do.  I love to give back to the community,” she says.  “I’m still amazed at how people can change the course of their lives.  When they run their race and win their medal, they really do feel they can accomplish anything.”

What’s next

The CRNA efforts continue, and grow stronger each year.  Bright has enlisted some of her success stories to help mentor others.  She’s still training runners, trying to give them the tools they need to turn their lives around.  And she’s still promoting wellness in her community.

She tells her colleagues that giving to others helps make them more whole.

“When you use your passions, when you look beyond yourself, it can be amazing!”

Like her team’s running jerseys read, CRNAs Rock!

Rock on, Patti.  Rock on!