American doctor pedals 1,600 km to Winnipeg to raise awareness after losing daughter to anorexia

When doctor and university professor Bridget Harrison, 34, died last year, her family vowed not to let the accomplished hand surgeon's short life and prolonged battle with anorexia and depression go unnoticed.

'She would not want anyone to go through what she had,' says dad of accomplished doctor who died

Kelly, left, and Dr. Paul Harrison pedalled into Winnipeg Sunday as the Wichita, Kan., brothers capped a 10-day bicycle journey from the U.S. Midwest to raise awareness for those struggling with eating disorders. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

When doctor Bridget Harrison, 34, died last year, her family vowed not to let her short life and prolonged battle with anorexia nervosa and depression go unnoticed.

It's been one year since the accomplished hand surgeon and former Baylor College of Medicine faculty teacher's death, and her father marked the sombre occasion by pedalling his heart out in Bridget's Wreath, a ride to raise awareness and funds for treating eating disorders and associated mental health challenges.

"She was a phenomenal individual in all respects — she was a genius," her father, Dr. Paul Harrison, told CBC Information Radio guest host Pat Kaniuga Monday morning.

"She finally succumbed to the depression and anxiety, but … there were periods where she would be happy. Those are the pictures I've stored in my mind."

Paul holds up his bike, adorned with a wreath in honour of his daughter Bridget. (Submitted by Bridget's Wreath/Facebook)

He and his brother Kelly Harrison, along with long-time friend Rick Stephens, took off on bicycles from Wichita State University in the morning of May 10 for Winnipeg.

They hit some bumps along the way. Stephens didn't make it all the way to Winnipeg and the brothers hit some headwinds that made the tail end of their trip a challenge.

But after 10 days and almost 1,600 kilometres later, they arrived in Winnipeg Sunday night. Paul said his daughter's struggles exemplify the need for more effective and accessible treatment options for those in the grips of an eating disorders.

He and and Stephens successfully made the trip once before, when the pair cycled from Kansas to Winnipeg in 2016. That ride was committed to raising funds for the Alzheimer's Association of Central & Western Kansas in memory.

Secrecy, shame, silence

When Bridget died last spring, Paul was absorbed in grief. Stephens suggested they pedal north again, this time for Bridget. Kelly got on board in part because of another family member's struggles with mental illness.

"I wasn't going to let him do it alone," said Kelly, adding one out of 10 people live with mental illness.

Kelly hoists up his big brother Paul with a hug en route to Winnipeg. (Submitted by Bridget's Wreath/Facebook)

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue, the brothers said, and there's a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the disorders and that contributes to feelings of fear and isolation.

Bridget first developed signs of anorexia at 12. Anxiety, depression and other control issues followed, said Paul.

"As that took hold, this bright, bubbly, wonderful child became more reclusive," he said. "That's one of the things about eating disorders is their secrecy, their shame, their silence, and it robbed her of a lot of her social interactions."

Paul believes his daughter's "brilliance" allowed her to function at a high level despite her struggles. 

She graduated at the top of her class in medical school and got into the top plastic surgery residency in the U.S. She landed a fellowship at UCLA and was later hired as a hand surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

No pill or operation

But anorexia and its host of mental health battles don't discriminate based on intellect; it can affect anyone, said Paul.

As a surgeon himself, he said it was hard for him to accept that he couldn't "fix" his daughter's illness.

"This doesn't have a operation or even a pill that you can take and get rid of it," he said. "The treatment for anorexia, depression, anxiety — organized medicine — is trying to fix this like it does, treating it like an infection."

The brothers take a break on Day 1 of their journey to Winnipeg. (Submitted by Bridget's Wreath/Facebook)

Paul said one of the goals of the awareness campaign is to underscore those shortcomings in traditional treatment and spur change. Anorexia is a battle that can last a lifetime, said Paul, and that's why those who live with the condition need ongoing support and therapy throughout their lives.

As for what his daughter would think of Bridget's Wreath ride, Paul said he's not entirely sure because people with anorexia understandably may be protective of their privacy.

"I thought she would be really pissed about us being so open about her life," said Paul.

"But she also was a very humble and kind and giving individual — she would give to others when she couldn't take care of herself — and she would not want anyone to go through what she had, so I think she would be OK with it."

The brothers rolled up to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights Sunday and head home Tuesday. As of Monday the ride had raised over $33,000 for the U.S.-based National Eating Disorder Association.

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