Sometimes opportunity knocks at the door and provides a chance for someone to step outside the comfort zone. Opportunity banged on my door when I heard about the 2008 Face of America Bike Tour. The ride, which covered 110 miles in two days, started in Bethesda, Md., and ended in Gettysburg, Pa.
The purpose of the event was to give wounded war veterans the chance to be part of a team despite severe injuries suffered in combat. It was organized by World Team Sports in coordination with Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Washington, D.C.), Bethesda (Maryland) Naval Hospital, Brooke Army Medical Center (San Antonio), Semper Fi Wounded Marine Fund, and Soldiers’ Angels Foundation.
On a sunny day in May, 300 riders 100 of whom were wounded veterans, who were joined by family, friends, and other veterans gathered at the trailhead on tandem bikes, low-recumbent bikes, hand bikes, tricycle-style bikes, and mountain bikes to begin the journey.
To watch over so many riders, organizers separated them into three waves of 100 – the red, white, and blue. I was the medical crew chief for the blue wave. As medical crew chief, it was my job to triage and determine whether a rider could continue or should go to the hospital if he or she was injured. Paramedics and EMTs were implanted in each wave with walkie-talkies to monitor riders. We also had a crew that blocked traffic and assisted with bike breakdowns. I followed in the van with another nurse.
One rider, Kevin, had Parkinson’s disease. I got to watch Kevin and his riding partner Jim tackle hills any way they could. Kevin, whose T-7 injury had left him wheelchair-bound, was strapped to a recumbent bike. Sometimes Jim had to jump off his bike and push it up the hill while pushing Kevin up at the same time. Several riders around them would stop and snatch Jim’s bike so he could help Kevin up a steep hill unencumbered.
On the second day, Bobby, another rider, got a chance to ride a bike for the first time since his injury. He had taken shrapnel to the right side of his brain and spent some time with the bone of his skull protected in his abdomen. His injury left him with stroke-like deficits on his left side, and he wore stroke braces on his ankles. At the lunch stop on the second day, we strapped him into a recumbent bike, wrapped his arm to his chest, and sent him off to the finish line 30 miles away.
I saw amazing courage and teamwork as Tim, one of our medics on a recumbent bike, and another rider pulled Bobby up hills and along the flats. He had two buddy riders behind him, one of whom was a high school student who never left Bobby’s right shoulder. He never rode ahead or complained. No one let Bobby give up for a second.
Over the course of the two-day ride, the blue wave experienced many nasty injuries. One rider fell six times on the second day and lacerated his shin during one incident. The medical coordinator put a dozen stitches in his shin on a doorstep in Maryland. Another rider hit his face against the pavement when the riders were tangled at the top of a killer hill, but he was OK.
In spite of the mishaps, all of the war-wounded made it across the finish line on the second day.
I have not been on a bike since I suffered a nerve injury in 1996, but I wanted to help during this event to give others the chance to enjoy the camaraderie and teamwork that goes into a bike tour. It was worth every second of my own near heart attack caused by a wounded soldier taking a serious tumble on his bike at the bottom of a long hill. In spite of the scary moments and the heartbreak hills, these guys have inspired me to get back on a bike.
I’m hoping this opportunity will knock again next year. I had the chance to help wounded war vets be winners in the face of adversity outside of their physical therapy and away from the familiar. It was a colorful parade, and I had the best seat in the house.