INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — As a dozen cyclists rounded the corner, pulling into the parking lot at HealthSouth Treasure Coast Rehabilitation Hospital on 37th Street, a peal of cheers and applause erupted from the crowd.
Three men, all sporting a prosthetic leg, peddled their way across the finish line – under an arch of red, white and blue balloons. Huffing and puffing, the men climbed off their bikes and made their way to the line of patients, most sitting in wheelchairs, to shake hands and give hugs.
“These guys are absolutely amazing,” HealthSouth CEO Pat Parder said.
The men, four in all, were joined for the last bit of the trip with about a dozen cyclers from various cycling clubs and shops around the area, escorting them.
“These guys are much harder than us,” Vero Beach cycler Mike Costner said. He chose to ride in with Amputees Across America to help bring awareness to their cause – promoting positive choices for those who find themselves a recent amputee.
The four Amputees Across America riders include founder Joe Sapere, Dick Fate, Doc Milligan, and John Cool, who rode 3,500 miles from Tustin, Calif, to Vero Beach. With their ride over, they will head back to their respective homes.
Milligan, of Springhill, Fla., wasn’t able to cross the finish line with his counterparts, having suffered a prosthetic malfunction just before the last segment of the ride.
“It’s been an honor,” Milligan told the crowd of being able to participate in the ride. He added that he hopes next year he’ll be able to finish the ride with the “big boys.”
Amputees Across America got its start nine years ago when Sapere, of Chesapeake, Va., decided he needed to ride his bicycle cross-country to prove to himself he was 100 percent after suffering the loss of his leg.
He said he had planned it to be a one-time deal, riding with two other amputees, but they had such a positive experience meeting patients at HealthSouth hospitals across the nation that they decided to make the journey an annual event.
For John Cool, from Allentown, Pa., this was his first cross-country jaunt by bicycle and he would do it again.
“The bike seat isn’t very comfortable,” he said, but having a cushioned rear to his bike shorts helps.
Fate, of Albuquerque, N.M., told the gathered patients that it is ok for them to mourn the loss of their limb, but at some point they must move forward.
“Look for the positive things,” he said, and don’t be afraid to accept help.
“We are ordinary people, just like you,” Sapere told the audience. He scoffed at his group being called heroes. The heroes, he said, are the physical therapists, the occupational therapists and others who help the patients.
The heroes, too, are the patients who “choose to get better – not bitter,” he said.