Stroke victim in Hernando can't speak or drive but bicycles long distances

In the lead, Derek Robbins 52, bicycles with friends. On weekends he rides 50 to 75 miles on the Suncoast Trail.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

In the lead, Derek Robbins 52, bicycles with friends. On weekends he rides 50 to 75 miles on the Suncoast Trail.

If, on Tuesday or Thursday mornings, you drive on U.S. 98 or State Road 50 or any other road with a view of the Suncoast Trail, you may see Derek Robbins.

He usually wears a red-and-white jersey and pedals a blue Felt bicycle that looks very light (it is) and very expensive (it was), and he rides with four or five other cyclists.

Though they are all serious riders and though one of them, Kurt Eickelmann, 77, was among the top German amateur bike racers of his generation, and though Robbins suffered a devastating stroke four years ago at age 48, he has no trouble keeping up. In fact, you might even see him out front, fighting the wind, pulling this little group along.

"Derek does his share of the work and more. He helps bring riders back up who have fallen behind," said Randy Mobley, one of the regulars on this ride. "He's a great guy to ride with."

I imagine it's a good feeling to be so accomplished and respected at any sport. I also imagine that having this ability is more satisfying when you have lost so many others, as Robbins has: the ability to speak, to do his old job as shop foreman in the service department of Ferman BMW in Clearwater, to ski, to golf and — because of a recent epileptic seizure that may have been an aftereffect of his stroke — to drive.

I imagine that he never takes his capacity to ride fast with his friends for granted. I imagine that on this Thanksgiving, he is as aware of his blessings as we all should be.

When I asked him this, he confirmed it with an emphatic nod and said, "Yeah."

But even before his stroke, he was smart enough to realize what he had in life, said his wife, Sharon. And he had a lot.

The son of a soldier, Robbins, 52, grew up in places as distant as England and Alaska before settling in Florida. He and Sharon, 56, a licensed practical nurse, met in a bar, "hit it off instantly" and were married — after six months of dating — 20 years ago.

With income from two good jobs and no children, they traveled to so many places that I only have space for a few representative examples: New Zealand, Sweden, Estonia, Colorado. When they were at home in East Linden Estates in Spring Hill, he golfed every Sunday. He rode ATVs and bicycles and was skilled and daring enough as a skier that Sharon used to jokingly ask him if he was up to date on his life insurance payments.

"He was a very mellow, likable guy," she said. "He made me feel like a princess."

He was also a good worker, putting in long hours at the shop, where he was so in demand, "I gave up trying to talk to him there," she said. "I'd call and all I could hear was 'Derek, Derek, Derek.' "

Maybe the stress of his job wore him down, she said, or maybe he had one of the hidden health defects that have made sudden, early death a Robbins family trait.

Whatever the cause, at about 3 a.m. on Feb. 22, 2008, Sharon noticed that Derek was "really tossing and turning. … It was a lot more violent than somebody who just couldn't get to sleep."

She turned on the lights and asked if he was all right, she said, and "I saw the facial droop, and he had a deer-in-the-headlights look, and of course he couldn't answer me."

Very likely, she said, he had suffered the stroke several minutes or even hours earlier, which has made recovery more difficult.

When he first came home from the hospital and a stint in a rehabilitation facility, Derek tried to communicate with hand gestures. Actually, just one hand gesture, a box formed with two index fingers.

"That was for everything. And what did it mean? I have no idea," Sharon said.

Since then, she said, he has regained some of the use of his partially paralyzed right hand. He can do yard work and mow the lawn. A former righty, he taught himself how to write with his left hand.

So, he can leave her notes now. If he needs shaving cream, he will lead her to the bathroom to show her the empty container. If he wants to tell her about something he read in the news, he pantomimes picking up the paper from the driveway.

When she guesses his meanings correctly, he nods and says "Yeah," and when she doesn't he shakes his head "no."

"It's a very frustrating and time-consuming process," she said.

And though "for having a stroke, he stays very upbeat," Derek sometimes goes through sullen and irritable patches, Sharon said, and he was fuming in the days after the seizure that dropped him to the floor of the Publix on County Line Road three Sundays ago.

Florida law prohibits driving for at least six months after an epileptic seizure. That will keep Derek from shopping for himself and from attending a support group for stroke victims at a nearby church, which he drove to every Thursday.

But it won't keep him from riding. He started doing that seriously two years ago, when he was fitted with a Felt with electronic gear shifters at San Antonio Cyclery in Pasco County.

On Saturdays and Sundays, he gets on his bike and cuts through the quiet Villages at Avalon subdivision to the Suncoast Trail, where he puts in 50 to 75 miles. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he does the group ride, which is shorter but faster.

I sometimes ride with them and, like riders everywhere, we communicate mostly with hand gestures and nods, or just by dropping back when we're tired or going to the front when we feel like pushing the pace.

Sometimes it's Mobley who surges ahead.

Often it's Eickelmann, who always seems to be training for a national age-group event.

Last Thursday, as we headed south on the trail toward the SR 50 bridge, it was Derek who took off.

He rode so fast that the rest of us had to pedal furiously to catch him, and it made no difference who could talk and who couldn't. We were all too out of breath to say a word.

Stroke victim in Hernando can't speak or drive but bicycles long distances 11/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 5:47pm]

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