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Road to recovery

A Treasure Island man sets off on a 2,000-mile bicycle trip for charity just months after surgery on a shattered right knee.

By TODD WRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


Flash animation: How the knee was rebuilt
TREASURE ISLAND -- Richard Agan, handyman and avid bicyclist, is in the middle of a 2,000-mile bike trip for charity, a journey he would have thought impossible only months ago because an accident had shattered his knee.

He had been helping a neighbor enclose his back porch, when a ladder slipped beneath him. He fell only a few feet, and there was no pop or cracking sound. Nor did he feel much pain.

But when Agan tried to get up, his knee practically fell apart underneath him.

While bracing for the impact with the concrete driveway below, Agan had gotten his leg caught in the ladder. As he hit the ground, his right knee landed on a metal rung. His tibia lanced halfway through his femur. His kneecap exploded.

"I only fell 4 or 5 feet, but the doctors said the damage looked like I had fallen two or three stories. I couldn't believe it," said Agan, a 51-year old resident of Treasure Island.

"I had fallen off roofs plenty of times and come away with only scrapes," said Agan. "I guess not this time."

Dr. Brett Bolhofner operated for two hours. After slicing open Agan's right leg from the ankle to the top of his knee, Bolhofner removed splintered fragments of bone that had shattered at the bottom of the knee. To stabilize the knee, he inserted a quarter-inch-thick stainless steel plate into the leg and secured it with five screws. The screws, ranging from 32 to 100 millimeters long, were also used to fuse an 18 centimeter crack down the middle of Agan's tibia.

Bolhofner, who specializes in this type of surgery, said the injury could have been worse. Despite shattering the bottom of his kneecap, Agan had no ligament or artery damage.

"It was a bad injury, but he was fortunate not to lose his whole leg," Bolhofner said.

Before leaving the operating table, Agan had a lightweight metal brace attached through his skin to his femur and tibia. Immobilized by the brace, he was told by doctors to stay in bed at home for six weeks and put no weight on his leg. His wife was there to enforce the doctor's orders.

"Through the whole thing, Bonnie has been very supportive," Agan said of his wife of 29 years. "I might have been a bad patient, but she was a great caretaker."

Then came painful physical therapy.

For six months, Agan endured the constant twisting and bending of his knee joint. He also had to walk the treadmill and lift weights. A therapist would bend Agan's knee as far as it could go to loosen the joint and see how sturdy it was.

"I hated the bending. I used to dread going to rehab some days," Agan said.

During the final months of his rehabilitation, doctors allowed Agan to return to doing what he loved so much, cycling. He started with a stationary bike, then progressed to short rides around the neighborhood. With the advice of therapists and doctors, Agan began riding his bike every day. He enrolled in a spinning class and often attended two or three classes a day.

Agan admits it was a big step for him.

"Of course I was scared because I didn't want to push my knee too much and injure it again, but doctors said it was the best thing for my knee," Agan said.

On June 8, Agan decided to test his knee and ride a bike across the country.

The ride is called the Spoke-N-Word and will help raise money for Literacy Volunteers Across America, a group that focuses on literacy programs. The group began in Portland, Ore., and will end in Providence, R.I., a 4,000-mile trip.

To date, Agan has traveled more than 700 miles to Carey, Idaho. Because of job responsibilities, Agan will ride only 2,000 miles, from Portland to Minneapolis. That will still be the longest distance he has ever covered.

"This will be a challenge for me, but riding long distances is nothing new to me," said Agan.

Agan has been cycling for more than 10 years and has participated in other fundraising rides before his injury. In 1996, he rode 400 miles across Iowa and in 1997, he participated in the 275-mile Florida AIDS Ride from Orlando to Miami. Agan, who loves to travel, has also gone bike riding in Nova Scotia, China and Vietnam.

Ed Phelan, organizer of the Spoke-N-Word, contacted Agan with the idea to join the ride a few months after he had healed. Phelan and Agan have been friends for about six years and have biked together before. Because of his reputation as a handyman, Agan will serve as the bike mechanic for the group.

Agan expects to raise at least $2,000 for charity and is eager to join similar rides if all goes well. He plans to ride from Tibet to Katmandu in the future.

"The world looks so much better from a bike than it does from sitting in a car," Agan said. "With life you never know what's going to happen."

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