AAA Riders Promote Attitude, Goals

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By Judy Hettinga
Bruce Hibbett (left), Mark Farrell (center), and Jim Delong with HealthSouth patient Sean Bakker and his older brother.
Bruce Hibbett (left), Mark Farrell (center), and Jim Delong with HealthSouth patient Sean Bakker and his older brother.

Bruce Hibbett, Jim Delong, and Mark Farrell have had the experience of a lifetime as participants in a cross-country bicycle and skydiving tour from Seattle, Washington, to Jacksonville, Florida.

As amputees, "the boys," as they refer to themselves, recognize they are members of "an exclusive fraternity." By their epic journey, they shout loud and clear that "&life goes on after amputation."

All three men wear the Pathfinder foot from Ohio Willow Wood, event Gold Sponsor, but other similarities are few. Yet, during the time The O&P EDGE joined the Amputees Across America (AAA) entourage, crossing the Continental Divide, plunging down frigid mountain passes, braving heat and then sleet, it was clear that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts."

Joe Sapere, 2002 AAA rider and trip planner and navigator, has managed to assemble the Perfect Team, three chosen from hundreds of applicants. Bruce, the more quiet and introspective of the group, observes, "We're just average guys."

Bruce and his wife Cheryl, one of the two-person Support Crew Extraordinaire, made the choice for amputation following Bruce's climbing accident long before others in a similar situation might have. Why? Because information was available. "We knew of amputee climbers with extremely high-tech gear (prostheses)," says Cheryl, indicating that a return to his normal active lifestyle would be a definite possibility for Bruce.

Jim, the jokester of the trio, was accompanied by his wife, Patricia "Trisha" Delong, the second member of the support crew. The boys regularly teased her about her motherly reminders designed to keep them separate from large vehicles that rushed by in close proximity to the riders.

A victim of a Vietnamese landmine, Jim endured excruciating pain for three decades following his original amputation. Pain-free since Ertl revision surgery performed December 24, 2002, he tells amputees, "set your goals, and don't settle. If I can do it, anyone can do it."

Mark, never at a loss for words, provides insight into his personal philosophy: "Attitude, for me, is everything. What you bring into [a situation] dictates what you take out of it."

A sector in which the boys are in complete agreement is recognizing the need for an easily accessible network of consolation, consultation, and support for amputees, particularly new amputees. At the heart of AAA 2003 are visitations at hospitals and rehabilitation facilities across the US. HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, is also a Gold Sponsor of the tour.

The EDGE observed firsthand the impact the boys had on staff and patients at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, Colorado Springs, Colorado. As well, those "strangers who are now friends," as Bruce puts it, affected the riders deeply as experiences and encouragement were exchanged.

The Colorado Springs hospital staff provided a royal welcome for the AAA tour. A group of cyclists including Olympic and Paralympic competitors, an orthopedic surgeon, prosthetists, physical therapists, and supportive locals escorted Jim, Bruce, and Mark to their grand entrance at the HealthSouth facility.

Mary Ellen Benson, CEO, HealthSouth Colorado Springs, addressed the gathering of patients and others, including special guests: AAA riders, State Representative Dave Schaltese, mayoral representative and City Councilman Scott Hente, Paralympian and spokesperson for Amputees in Motion Noreeta Watts, and brothers Luke and Ethan Myers, patients of HealthSouth.

Signed posters and information packets provided by Ohio Willow Wood were presented to dignitaries. Tours of HealthSouth and a delicious barbecue picnic complete with mountain backdrop and live music contributed to the upbuilding atmosphere.

However, time rolls on, as must AAA 2003. The boys left in their wake new friends, an air of hope, and an inspiring example that speaks louder than words to promote the attitudes and goals leading to patient success.

For more information, action and humor-packed daily journals, and photos, visit  www.amputeesacrossamerica.com.