Northside employees keep fit, strengthen friendships through 5K races

Group frequently targets races tied to the hospital or that support oncology patients

Even though they have busy lives and careers, a group of professionals who work at the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute in Atlanta make time to bond by running at least one 5K a month together. As a result, they’ve established wonderful friendships, increased their fitness, reduced stress and found another way to connect with their patients.

“This is truly like a no-judgment zone,” Maxine Robles, manager of physician and program marketing, explained. “It’s a safe place where we’re all a little slow, we’re tired, but we’re here.”

If she felt intimidated by the group, she said, she wouldn’t want to keep showing up every month. Being disciplined in running, she added, has carried over into other parts of her life as well.

“Your life habits change with running,” Robles explained. It has such a ripple effect …”

Although the runners make note of their times and feel good when they’re able to improve, getting a personal best time isn’t the real goal. Supporting one another is far more important.

In fact, when Brooke P. Balun, lead radiation oncology nurse practitioner, had eye surgery before a race, the group walked the next course instead of running so they could stay with her.

Their friendship is further cemented when they go out together after races to celebrate, socialize and catch up.

“It’s so interesting about this group,” Robles said. “We’re all in different phases of life.”

She pointed out the runners include a grandma, a few women who have teenagers and a single woman in her 20s. They find it fun getting away from talk about work and hearing about what’s going on with everyone, from dates to kids to grandkids.

The group frequently targets races tied to Northside Hospital or that support oncology patients. Their most recent race, for example, was the Northside Hospital Atlanta Women’s 5K on March 23. Robles and Balun said they have plans to run a longer race and travel to Chicago for a 10K.

“We try to get together once a month — that’s our main run,” Robles said. “We have some sponsored Northside and oncology races to raise funds for causes that are near and dear to our heart.”

Melissa Nolet, a certified medical dosimetrist, radiation oncology, found that although she was athletic and ran in high school, she wasn’t as active in college, and then work made demands on her time.

“My job is a desk job, so there’s a lot of sitting. They say sitting is the new smoking, unfortunately,” she said.

The challenge with setting a running schedule is that life can easily steer you away, she added. But she said making goals and having her group of friends to support her helps her keep moving forward.

The women also said it helps them motivate their patients, who love to see staff members out of the office pursuing the same activity they’re doing.

Balun recently used running to help bond with and encourage a patient who was working to build back her stamina after receiving treatment for cancer. They both had run in the Northside 5K and shared how they handled the hilly course that took them through the Grant Park and Summerhill neighborhoods.

“It was such a cool, quick little bond with this patient,” she said.

Running also gives her the chance to tell patients about her efforts and to let them know that if she can do it, they can, too.

The group’s friendship and commitment to exercise also helps them handle the stresses of working in oncology, they said.

“We get really close to patients,” Balun says. That means having conversations about things that are serious, stressful and life-changing, even when they’re talking to patients who will ultimately be fine.

One of the group’s newest members is Mary Johnson, a radiation oncology RN. She started running at age 58 and will participate in her first Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race at 63. She was inspired by Robles’ enthusiasm and energy as she trained at 6 a.m.

Johnson has seen the benefits of running and said it helps her to be better equipped to handle stress.

“No doubt about it. Endorphins are the greatest thing after a race,” she said.

Johnson also encourages older runners who might think they’ve missed their chance to tackle races if they didn’t start when they were younger.

“It’s never too late to start,” she said.

The group said it is grateful for Northside Hospital’s support of their efforts, and as other employees find out about their bond and commitment to a monthly 5K, they hope to gain new members. And Nolet credits Robles with holding the group together.

“Maxine is really the heart behind it all,” she said.