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Amputee cyclists pedal hope to rehabbing patients

Four amputees are proving something on their cross-country bicycle trip.

And it’s not just that four amputees can cross the country on their bicycles.

Amputees Across America riders are showing rehabilitating patients that a meaningful, active life awaits those who overcome the effects of a serious illness or injury.

They visited HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Sarasota Friday morning on their way to Vero Beach and the end of a 3,500-mile journey that began June 2 in Tustin, Calif.

Ride founder Joe Sapere has taken 35 amputees on the trip in the nine years he has partnered with HealthSouth.

No matter the destination, the journey always ends the same.

“When they start the ride, they’re so egocentric,” said Sapere, a 69-year-old retired Air Force colonel who lost his left leg 10 years ago in a skydiving accident. “They’re trying to prove something to themselves.

“About halfway through the ride, there’s a transformation where they’re not proving to themselves what they can do, but they’re proving to others. The viewpoint goes from inside to outside.”

Sapere, Dick Fate, John Cool and Doc Milligan pedaled into the HealthSouth parking lot to the cheers of about 40 patients and as many staff members. They were accompanied by a police escort and 10 support riders from HealthSouth and the Sarasota community.

They planned to spend the day visiting patients in physical therapy and in their rooms, offering encouragement and hope. The amputees will have visited 20 HealthSouth hospitals when the trip ends.

“It’s very emotional, seeing what they’re going through,” said Cool, a 43-year-old from Allentown, Pa., who lost his right leg in a 2004 motorcycle accident. “Realistically, a lot of the patients aren’t going to be able to come back from what they’re facing.”

The riders attacked the long trip in tag-team fashion, each riding between 20 and 30 miles per day while the others traveled by van.

Cool, a first-time rider, said the highlight of the trip was coming down the back side of Colorado’s Poncha Pass. The pass is at 9,010 feet elevation, and once the riders reached the end, the landscape dropped 1,200 feet in seven miles.

“We went down the first time, and we did 44 miles an hour,” Cool said. “We got down to the bottom of the hill and took a little water break at a gas station, and one of the riders said, ‘You want to do that again?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah.’ ... We threw the bikes in the truck, went back up the seven miles and went back down it the second time and did 53 miles an hour.”

While the other riders use a prosthesis, Fate, a 61-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., who lost his left leg to cancer in 2007, opts to pedal with just one leg.

“I lose 10 pounds, and it’s a whole lot easier this way,” he told the HealthSouth patients. “I’ve learned there’s often a number of ways to skin a cat.”

Milligan, 63, of Spring Hill, Fla., is finishing his second cross-country ride after losing a leg to a bone disease three years ago. It would be his third ride, but a collision with a stray dog during training for his initial trip laid him up with a broken hip.

He later adopted the dog after the two reconciled.

“I didn’t get mad at him for breaking my hip,” Milligan said, “but I did get even. I had him neutered.”

Amputees Across America left the HealthSouth patients with a challenge to become better by fighting through their difficulties.

“If I had not lost my leg, I would not be the person that I am today,” Sapere said. “We’re strengthened by adversity. ... In many ways, losing my leg, or any adversity, has a way of defining what the purpose is in this life.”