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Bicyclists spread hope as they ride

Members of Amputees Across America bring their story of courage and inspiration to Brooksville.

By APRIL YEE
Published July 28, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - Flanked by two HealthSouth vans, Joe Sapere coasted into the rehabilitation center driveway on State Road 50, his prosthetic leg decorated with a print of an American flag and a glaring bald eagle.

A group of fans, some in wheelchairs and others with prosthetic legs, cheered.

Sapere had almost reached the end of the two-month, cross-country bicycle ride he takes every year.

This is his fifth ride with Amputees Across America, the organization he founded in 2002.

The goal is to show the amputees he meets at rehabilitation centers across the country - such as this one in Brooksville - that they can also regain health, independence and movement.

Sapere dismounted, and along with biking partner Gary Summers, he shook the hands of the spectators sitting in the shade of HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Spring Hill.

One woman sat in her wheelchair, the bottom half of her left leg missing. Joan Buckowski, who lost her leg this year, is just one of the amputees Sapere has met these past two months.

"Congratulations!" Buckowski said.

"I'm Joe, by the way."

"I have one leg, too."

Sapere held up one finger - "One leg?" - then another - "Two?"

Buckowski laughed. The 71-year-old from Hudson said Sapere offered a small glimpse of possibilities for her future.

Her left leg had become infected beyond recovery while she was being treated for diabetes. She has been at the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Spring Hill on and off since January, first after her amputation and later on following bypass surgery.

Now she can walk with help.

Two months ago, about the time Sapere left Tustin, Calif., on his ride, Buckowski sent the bikers group a $25 check.

She is proud of what they do and what she may eventually do.

"I'm not going to have my prosthesis covered either," said Buckowski, who was sitting in a wheelchair. "I want people to ask questions. I want to reassure them that just because you lose a leg, you don't have to lose your life."

Buckowski lives at Gulf Coast Resort, a nudist colony.

"A leg doesn't make you a person. A breast doesn't make you a person," she said. "That's why I like nudism - because your outside doesn't matter."

Charles Dempsey, medical director at the facility and himself an amputee, oversaw Buckowski's care.

At age 19, Dempsey fell asleep at the wheel in Fort Myers. He was a carpenter at the time. But after his leg was amputated below the knee, he decided to become a doctor.

Wednesday, as Sapere spoke to rapt patients in the physical therapy room, Dempsey checked on his patients. He said he was thankful that Sapere and another biker had stopped by.

"It helps amputees realize the high level of accuracy they can participate in," he said. "They're not disabled by any stretch."

There are now 1.8-million amputees in the United States, Dempsey said.

Though only four amputees are getting care at the facility, other patients there are regaining their ability to walk and perform other activities after strokes or surgeries.

"We're not Lance Armstrong," Sapere said, "but we're a lot more like you."

After the speech, the 53-year-old Summers walked around the sprawling physical therapy room at the center. He stopped by a man pedaling at a recumbent bike. A long scar ran down the man's skull.

"I was in a motorcycle accident," Summers said.

"Ouch!" said James Powell, 35. Powell of Spring Hill was working on regaining movement in his right side after brain surgery.

Summers signed a poster of himself and the other riders with a Sharpie and handed it to Powell.

Three years ago, Summers was riding his motorcycle down a country road in Ohio when another biker crossed into his path.

Summers said he cruised through physical therapy and then returned to work at John Deere. However, he went back to driving a forklift, which was easier for him.

Summers met Sapere while in rehabilitation at Ohio Willow Wood, an Amputees Across America sponsor with HealthSouth. Sapere was getting a special leg so that he could ride his bike.

Then, in November, Summers got a call from Sapere.

"Want to ride across America?"

Sapere, the founder of Amputees Across America, was looking for amputees to ride with him.

Summers told Sapere yes. He hadn't ridden a bicycle in 40 years. But the timing was right. In April, Summers' John Deere dealership shut down, and he was without a job.

He set out with Sapere June 1.

"I get charged up by being able to share with all the patients and hearing their stories," said Summers.

The duo planned to stop in St. Petersburg on Wednesday night, and by Monday, they intended to find the end of this year's road in Vero Beach.

April Yee can be reached at ayee@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 23:34:19]


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