Red Lights – A Story of Resilience and Perseverance

By Madeline Murphy Rabb, National Seniors Games Association

For more than twelve years, I have worked with a swimming coach. I began as an okay Freestyle swimmer in my 60s. However, in my 70s, I excelled. Between 2016-2019 I completed two indoor triathlons and won 16 medals in the 500, 200, 100, and 50 freestyle at regional National Senior Games. Every two years, the National Senior Games Association holds national competitions in different cities. Men and women from 50-100 years of age compete in their age group in more than 25 sports. In 2019 I competed in swimming in Albuquerque. Now I am training for the 2022 national games in Ft. Lauderdale.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, I took occasional cycling lessons with Derrick and twice-a-weekly swimming sessions in the pool in my condo. After it was closed due to COVID, I switched to cycling as my primary sport. We had always biked on Chicago’s extensive bike paths along Lake Michigan. But during the Spring of 2020, bike paths were closed. The other option was to bike on the streets. Even with less traffic, it is dangerous—distracted cellphone-talking drivers. Views blocked by trucks and buses. Cars were encroaching bike lanes—car doors swung open. And hostile drivers. Still, less traffic created a unique opportunity to overcome my terror of biking in traffic.

On the first day, we cycled from my condo on the Goldcoast to the COSTCO parking lot near Diversey Avenue, a 4-mile ride. Derrick commended my stamina and skills. I mugged for pictures in front of COSCO to share with my family. The last time I’d cycled was a year earlier with my then-boyfriend on the verdant bike paths along cerulean Lake Michigan. It was a particularly satisfying ride since I’d left my now ex, 10-years-younger boyfriend, catching his breath in the dust. But biking on Chicago streets was different. Even with my coach guiding me, I was anxious. Especially when I approached traffic lights. As I watched the numbers count down on the crosswalk signal, I worried. Is there enough time to cross the intersection before the light turns red? If I need to wait, should I stay aloft and peddle in place? Or come to a complete stop and dismount? I dreaded having to make split-second decisions. Still, after my first day out, I was proud I’d biked so far. But, adding to my anxiety about traffic lights was my soreness after the long ride since I had neglected to wear biking pants. I decided to order the new ones, recommended by my coach, to wear on our next biking session.

A week later, on my way to meet Derrick, I fell off my bike at one of the most dangerous intersections in my neighborhood. As I approached a dreaded red light, I had to decide: peddle standing in place while waiting for the light to change to green? Or dismount? Choosing to dismount, I fell on my right side. Fortunately, this typically packed intersection was almost empty. An older couple rushed to my aid and righted my bike while I struggled to get up. I was not embarrassed—but I was mad as hell. Here I was, a 75-year-old athlete who exercises regularly, eats healthily, competes in triathlons, and wins medals. My grandchildren call me Gaga the Jock. My family and un-athletic friends admire me. But, a few days earlier, when they learned, I was not only biking in the street, but during the pandemic, they labeled me foolhardy.

Before the pandemic, I talked openly about my life with my doting sons, Maurice and Chris. But months into the pandemic, my sons became increasingly concerned and judgmental about how I lived my life. When they lectured me about sheltering in place and mask-wearing, I bristled and felt infantilized. Since my husband’s death sixteen years ago, I have lived alone in my condo, on my own terms. But during the pandemic, I felt a shift in how my well-meaning sons, family, and friends talked about me. They believed I did not take the dangers of COVID to heart. They disapproved of my grocery shopping excursions, listening to music outside, even six feet apart in a friend’s neighborhood, seeing my boyfriend, and biking. I always wore a mask, read covid statistics, knew the health risks, and kept up with CDC guidelines. I reserved the right to keep my own counsel.

Thanking the couple for their help, I walked my bike to the sidewalk, gathered my wits, and ignored the pathetic stares. Then I tried to strut—then gave in—to limping—with my bike across Chicago Avenue. Instead of biking in the street, I decided to cycle on the empty sidewalk. As I swung my leg above the seat, l lost my balance and fell again. I was mortified. Two times in a row? What’s going on with me? Again strangers rushed to my aid. This time I was embarrassed and angry. Almost in tears, I wondered if I was losing my balance. Was it too risky for me to cycle at 75 years of age? But one thing I knew for sure, I would not tell anyone except my coach. Still, at that moment, my other concern was pure vanity—the likelihood of residual brown spots from scrapping my unblemished, athletic legs. Bruised ego, throbbing leg, and doubting myself, I peddled cautiously to meet my coach.

I recounted my terrifying bike falls and my angst about traffic lights to Derrick and considered ditching my lesson. I would never tell anyone else about the accidents. My coach was not sympathetic or overly concerned as he analyzed the mishaps. “Your cycling pants are too large. When you lift and swing your leg to mount your bike, the cushioned pants don’t clear the top of the seat– plus your coronavirus weight gain. Instead of biking in the street, today let’s go to the park and focus exclusively on drills-stopping, mounting, and dismounting.”

A smile crept across my face-even with his comment about my weight. “Oh my god, it was because my pants snagged the seat.” A massive sigh of relief escaped my lungs as I tugged my pants higher around my waist. The little park, west of Navy Pier, was one mile from my condo. The sidewalk, lined with benches and trees, surrounds a big rectangle of grass. At the north end is a row of benches parallel to a fountain encircled by pavement. The idyllic park was a relief from the dangerous streets and perfect for doing cycling drills. I asked Derrick to record an iPhone video of me in motion to post on the National Senior Games Facebook page. They were requesting members to demonstrate how we exercised during the pandemic. He shot a couple of one-minute videos of me starting, stopping, and dismounting my bike. Then he decided I should demonstrate how to retrieve the water bottle from the bottle holder on my bike—while cycling. He captured me, removing the bottle from the bottle holder. The water bottle slipped from my right hand as I cycled at full speed. I panicked and squeezed my front brake. As I lurched forward, the bike handlebar jammed into my right side with such force I saw stars. In excruciating pain, Derrick helped me shuffle to a bench and collapse. I had no broken bones and did not hit my head, just a bright red mark where the handlebar jammed into my side. After catching my breath, I eased off the bench and mounted my bike. Silently we biked the long mile back to my condo. “Madeline, do you have any pain medications? I’ll go to Walgreens if you need anything.” I shook my head. “Well, take aspirin and apply hot and cold compresses. Let me know how you are doing, and if you don’t feel better, go to the Emergency Room.”

I fell three times in a month, and there was no way I would tell anyone. For several days I rested, soaked in Epson Salts, and took aspirin. I have a high pain tolerance and endured it for a few days. Then noticing my increasing sluggishness and need to take frequent naps, I rationalized–considering a frigging handlebar jammed into my side, pain is normal. On the fifth day, I noticed my breathing sounded different—like the sound of crunching Rice Krispies or scratchy tin foil. I was peeved when the pain shot through my torso when I struggled to get out of bed. What happened to my strong core muscles? Then I talked to myself, “Girl, what’s the worst that could happen if I walked to Urgent Care across from Northwestern— just in case something might be wrong with me?”  Besides, it was a glorious June day, I’d been inside for five days, and a leisurely walk would be nice.

I told the doctor about my biking accident, she complimented me on being so active. “Well, I’m glad you decided to come in.” But I noticed how quiet she became as she moved the cold stethoscope across my sweaty back and chest. “I think we need to take a chest X-ray.” She held up the x-ray and pointed. “You have a collapsed right lung. This is serious. I’m calling the Emergency Room at Northwestern.” I mumbled, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing I decided to come to Urgent Care.” Within moments a nurse was wheeling me across Fairbanks Street to Northwestern Hospital. I lowered my head, hoping no one recognized me. Only a few days earlier, I had biked down that very street. And here I was, five days later, being pushed by a nurse across the same street–in a frigging wheelchair.

As the young thoracic resident and nurse examined me, they were awed when I told them I was a competitive swimmer and cyclist. Still, they inquired why I had not come sooner to the emergency room. I responded, “I believe I am indomitable.” The doctor replied, “Well, that’s a good attitude, but you took a huge risk. If you’d waited any longer, you could have developed pneumonia. You need chest tube thoracic surgery immediately.” I was dumbfounded. “The procedureinvolves making a small incision in your side and inserting a hollow plastic tube between the ribs and the chest to drain fluid or air from around the lungs. Then the tube is hooked up to a suction machine to help with drainage.” It seemed like an out-of-body experience as he spoke. Then I said, “I didn’t tell either of my sons about my accident. Maurice lives in Chicago. I’ll call him.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.”

“M-o-m! You fell, when? And now you’re telling me you are about to have chest surgery? And you were in pain when you talked to me this morning and all last week?”

“Yes, Maurice, I just didn’t want to tell anyone.”

“A-n-y-o-n-e? M-o-m, you know I support your biking. We admire that you are athletic, independent, and self-sufficient. But M-o-m…”My son spoke quietly yet, I knew he was hurt I had not told him.

“I know, I know…I should have told you. Honey, I’m really sorry. I’ll let you talk to the surgeon. And please call Chris.”

I was in denial about the seriousness of my injury until the third day of my five-day hospital stay. My bravado evaporated. I felt alone and vulnerable. Tethered to a long clear tube inserted in my chest, I watched the liquid draining into the bag hanging on the hospital bed and heard the humming draining system. I was not used to being still, and I had a lot of time to think. Twice a day, technicians took chest ex-rays, and I waited to learn if my collapsed long had inflated. Each day I waited to know if it remained inflated. I waited for the nurses to turn off the machine to determine if my lung would stay inflated. The final test was to remove the tube and wait to see if the lung remained inflated. It finally struck me; the accident was consequential. I had never been ill and could not fathom a life with a damaged lung. I finally wept. I wished I’d had someone to confess my fears. I almost wished I had asked Maurice to visit me despite his justified concerns about the risks of being in a hospital during a pandemic.

I was delighted when Derrick insisted on checking on me. I appreciate he never coaches me as though I am a fragile 76-year-old woman. He always treats me as though I am years younger, never underestimating me and always pushing me beyond my limits. Still, I think we were both vulnerable–Derrick seeing me confined to a hospital bed–and my always in perpetual motion. While he never said he felt badly for pushing me so hard in the park, I needed to assure him and myself the reason the mishap occurred was because I was willingness to take risks. And letting down my defenses and allowing myself to be vulnerable was a relief. And we knew after I healed, it would be coaching as usual. Before Derrick could visit me a second time, I was well enough to go home. The nurse gave me a plastic contraception to test my lung capacity every hour for the next few days. “Once your lungs return to normal, you can resume your life.” I asked, “What about biking and swimming?” “Sure. But take your time and see how you feel.”  I asked, “Can I walk home? I only live a couple of blocks from here.” The nurse smiled, “Sure. I told my family all about you being this amazing athlete. Everybody on the floor is in awe.” I was flattered and touched. When I told Maurice, I wanted to walk home, he said, “Okay, I’ll bring my car just in case.” After the nurse wheeled me into the lobby, I thought better of it and asked him to drive me home. Occasionally, I need to accept offers of help.

After I was settled at home, I waited several days before telling close family and friends about my accident and surgery.  With no desire to repeat the story or endure lectures from well-meaning girlfriends—three weeks following my accident—I sent a group text. “I’ve kept my recent mishap to myself until I fully recovered. I did not want to listen to anyone fussing at me or telling me what I should or should not be doing— even though I know it comes from your love and concern for me…” I described the accident and surgery in great detail. I continued, “I’m 99% recovered, totally mobile with a tiny bit of pain. I went grocery shopping the day after I got home, but I’m taking it easy for another week.” I concluded, “I can’t wait to resume my swimming and go biking along the lake.” I knew most of my friend would erupt in anger for not telling them. Only one I was sure would understand. “Stop, damn it. Do not lecture me. It is my choice to tell or not tell. And no one has the right to tell me how to conduct my life.”

Weeks later, I mentioned my hospitalization to my young dentist, who is always entertained by my adventures. I was touched and shocked when I received a delicious dinner from her favorite Italian restaurant. When I thanked her, she said, “That’s one of the benefits of being vulnerable with friends. It allows us to demonstrate our love.”

By mid-August 2020 I made a complete recovery. I resumed taking bike lessons with Derrick and overcame my fear of red lights and the terror of biking in traffic. Spring 2021 I resumed swimming sessions in my pool, and I am training for the National Senior Games in 2022. My decision against telling my family and friends about my accident and hospitalization provoked illuminating conversations about boundaries. However, the new scars on my legs and losing weight are another story.

Article courtesy of

For more information about the National Senior Games Association, visit