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Amputees Across America cyclists share stories of overcoming adversity

Doc Milligan, 64, one of four cyclists from the Amputees Across America ride, greets Debbie Nuckoles, 51, on Monday at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Spring Hill. Milligan and the other cyclists stop along their route to talk with patients, sharing stories of how they overcame losing a limb.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Doc Milligan, 64, one of four cyclists from the Amputees Across America ride, greets Debbie Nuckoles, 51, on Monday at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Spring Hill. Milligan and the other cyclists stop along their route to talk with patients, sharing stories of how they overcame losing a limb.

About 15 years ago, David Goris fit a young man with an artificial leg and then talked to him about getting a cover that would make the leg look more lifelike — or really, considering the generic shape of the covers and that only two vaguely flesh-colored shades were available at the time, more mannequin-like.

The man declined.

He was a triathlete who planned to get right back to training, said Goris, owner of Sonlife Prosthetics and Orthotics in Spring Hill: "He said, 'When I pass people, I want them to know they got passed by somebody with one leg.' "

That was when Goris realized the stigma of artificial limbs was vanishing. He joked that when he started in the business in the late 1970s, the most famous amputees were Captain Hook and Long John Silver.

Now prosthetic-wearing role models include lots of triathletes; robust Iraqi war veterans; Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter who almost qualified for the 2008 Olympics running on a pair of springy, J-shaped carbon fiber legs, and, on Monday, four cyclists who stopped in at the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Center in Spring Hill on their Amputees Across America tour.

In truth, this tour is as much about public relations as cycling.

What was touted as four amputees crossing the United States on bicycles is really a van trip between HealthSouth facilities broken up by occasional bike rides. During the two-month journey that started in California and will end next week in Vero Beach, the cyclists will pedal a total of about 700 miles, said founder Joe Sapare, 69.

But I liked Sapare, who reminded me of my parents in that he'd been a military officer who later worked in the schools — Sapare as an elementary school teacher in Virginia Beach, Va. He and I went to the same college in northern Ohio, a tiny one, so running into a fellow alum down here is like visiting New York from Brooksville and seeing somebody in a Hernando High T-shirt.

Plus, Sapare likes to do stuff — ride and sky dive, which is how he shattered his left leg in 2000. Another sky diver swung through his parachute's canopy. It collapsed, and Sapare dropped 75 feet to the ground.

And here was another reason to like him and the three other riders on the tour, including Michael "Doc'' Milligan, 64, of Spring Hill.

A lot of bike riders are self-obsessed weenies. A strained calf muscle can send them into an emotional tailspin. These guys, on the other hand, have all bravely dealt with losing a leg.

For Saspare, "It was a calculated decision.''

Doctors told him he could avoid amputation only by fusing his ankle, meaning he'd never be able to run.

"I told them to give me a foot I could run on,'' he said.

And sky-dive on. He now has "more one-legged jumps than two-legged jumps,'' he said.

He organized the first Amputees Across America tour in 2002. The point isn't to ride every mile across the country, he said, but to ride enough to show that "a bunch of amputees could spend two months on the road, enjoying life and riding bikes.''

They tell people facing scary, discouraging recoveries that they can get better, and maybe get back to doing whatever it was they loved doing before they were hurt or injured. And that is what they did Monday morning in a gymnasium-sized therapy room full of patients at HealthSouth on State Road 50; they told their stories.

Milligan, an artist who specializes in American Indian drawings with dyed sand, injured his leg in an on-board explosion when he was serving in the Navy in the late 1960s.

Fifteen years ago, he had to start using crutches. Five years ago, gangrene set in and doctors trying to save as much of his leg as possible amputated four different times within a month. The final cut came right at his knee.

Milligan got one of those high-tech prosthetics that more and more amputees are proud to show off, with a knee-like joint where the middle of his shin used to be. Cables like the ones used in bicycles take the place of tendons. A locking mechanism keeps the joint rigid when it is bearing weight and, when it isn't, it moves freely enough to let him pedal.

"Looking back, I probably should have had it done 10 years earlier,'' he said.

Amputees Across America cyclists share stories of overcoming adversity 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 8:34pm]
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