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Amputees Across America inspire rehabbing patients by example

Loss is culpable at a rehabilitation facility. • HealthSouth in Largo is no exception. • Patients there have hearts with holes, shoulders missing arms, minds without links to bodies. • The staff is cheerful, the equipment state-of-the-art, but for a man or woman with suddenly less of themselves, hope has a way of vanishing along with a lost knee or eye. • "They're coming to us to get better, but many are depressed," said HealthSouth Largo marketing director Martin O'Neil. • The fear of life without limb can be as debilitating as any physical handicap. • Though through a partnership with a group called Amputees Across America, the rehabilitation chain has found a treatment that no technology can match, and each patient can master.

Motivation. Inspiration through example.

A striking one, at that: men and women who have lost limbs, yet embark on an annual journey most people with all their arms and legs likely will never muster.

From California, across the West through Texas, into the South and now onto Florida, Amputees Across America founder Joe Sapere has pedaled a bicycle along with three other amputees, stopping at more than 20 HealthSouth hospitals along the way since June 2.

The group visited Largo on Tuesday and Wednesday, raising money, and delivering a message.

"You can get your life back. We demonstrate you can. We got our lives back, and so can you," Sapere said.

Amputees Across America was started by Sapere, now 69, after he lost his left leg in a skydiving accident in 2000. Another parachutist clipped Sapere's deployed canopy as he was 75 feet above the ground. He came crashing down.

After the fall, the surgeries, the time trapped in a bed, he had something to prove.

"My goal was to prove to myself that I was back to 100 percent," Sapere said.

So he rode a bicycle across the United States.

Every year since, along with other amputees, he has repeated the journey to spread a message of life after loss, strength from a fall — or car accident, cancer or war wound. HealthSouth sponsors the trips, and the group visits its hospitals.

At the HealthSouth hospital Wednesday, Sapere and the other riders, Doc Milligan, Dick Fate and John Cool, each missing a leg, visited with patients.

They walked the main rehabilitation area, where dozens of patients lifted small weights, exercised arms and legs and backs, assembled puzzles. They were greeted like celebrities. Handshakes, and some hugs.

Instead of autographs, they left behind a wisdom of men who have been there, struggling through long recoveries.

John Cool, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident five years ago, was one of the riders. He began speaking with Sue Haney, 83, who recently suffered a crushed ankle and injured arm.

"I can't lift mine, too," Cool said. In addition to losing his leg, his right arm was also badly damaged.

Haney said she wanted to get back to her fully functional self — so she wouldn't be a burden on her daughter. A difficult thing to envision, when every movement comes with a streak of pain, and mobility is bound to a wheelchair.

"I think you are wonderful. You give us courage," Haney told Cool.

"You give me courage!" Cool replied.

Inspiration works both ways.

Dick Fate, who lost a leg to cancer and is still battling the disease, spoke to the patients later as they gathered around a lectern to hear the riders' stories.

"Take stock of what you have and what happened to you and deal with it," Fate said. "You may have lost something, but it's in you to will the difference."

The riders continued their journey Thursday, and will end this year's trek next week in Vero Beach.

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

On the Web

To learn more about Amputees Across America, the group's previous trips and the 2010 ride, visit www.amputeesacrossamerica.com.

Amputees Across America inspire rehabbing patients by example 07/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 26, 2010 5:56pm]

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