Long road back

Nikiski man finds new life on a handcycle

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2007


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  Handcyclists use their upper body to pedal the high performance three wheeled vehicles. Gilliland's handcycle has 27 gears.

Handcyclists use their upper body to pedal the high performance three wheeled vehicles. Gilliland's handcycle has 27 gears.

Rick Gilliland's life was once filled with horseback riding, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, power lifting and his children's wrestling and softball teams when not working on a construction job. His life was active and his daily achievements high by any measure.

Without warning it all changed in a single afternoon, leaving him partially paralyzed for life.

Ten years later, paralysis remains in his body but not on his life.

Agonizing afternoon

While at work on the afternoon of June 12, 1997, Gilliland suffered unlike any other day. He wound up in the hospital and soon realized his life had changed forever.

"I was doing construction," said Gilliland, who was then 36. "All at once, at lunch time, I just felt weird and clammy. The guys said I looked bad, and about 3, I couldn't move my toes or anything."


Gilliland had contracted transverse myelitis.

"It's a swelling in the spinal cord," said the Nikiski resident who moved to the peninsula from Ohio 25 years ago. "They traced that infection back to a sinus cold. My sister did some research, and at that time, there were about 990 cases diagnosed in the U.S. So it was pretty rare."

And still is.

"The only thing they could put their finger on was the immune system doesn't fight off the infection," Gilliland said. "There's no antibodies. It sets up camp where it wants, and mine hit in the chest area, called T4."

Gilliland was paralyzed from the chest down.

"After the swelling went down, I was able to regain some movement," Gilliland said. "The first 18 months after was the main recovery, they say about 40 to 60 percent. I can walk upright, but it's very limited, with support and canes and all. The way I came home from the hospital was with full leg braces and a wheelchair."


Handcyclists use their upper body to pedal the high performance three wheeled vehicles. Gilliland's handcycle has 27 gears.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Gilliland's family, as expected, was traumatized. His sister, Soldotna resident Judy McDonald, said they did their best to persevere and help Rick stay strong. By the time the initial shock wore off everyone, she said it was Rick leading the family.

"It brought us all together," McDonald said. "We were praying for him a lot, trying to be sure he didn't give up on life. I'd have said just leave me alone and let me die.

"His attitude helped the rest of the family. He inspired us."

For anyone else, the inspiration might seem unexpected. With Gilliland, perhaps a seed of his natural competitive nature, ever-present before, kicked in when it was needed most.

"He's quite competitive. He's very determined," McDonald said.

Life's changes

But life as Gilliland knew it was over. New life was about to begin, whether he was ready for it or not.

"Then I tried to come to grips with changes of life for me," Gilliland said. "Before this hit, I helped coached my sons' wrestling team and my daughter's softball team. I was volunteering and helping, did horseback riding, hunting, hiking, mountain biking. After that, things changed. I'm a veteran, so my care is taken care of through the VA. Every year I go to the veterans' spinal cord facility in Puget Sound (Wash.)."

Gilliland said he can walk with an arm brace and canes.

"I'm very limited," he said. "I can't make a lap around the football track, that's for sure. For me to walk 100 yards is a pretty good distance."

While Gilliland did well in that 18-month recovery period, he was slow to hook into anything that kept him occupied.

"Five years through this, I went from 230 pounds and active to 270 pounds and very inactive," Gilliland said. "At that time, they always talked to me at my checkups to get some weight management under control, get my blood pressure under control."

Gilliland told his care-givers about his exploits in power lifting in the late 1980s.

"I loved competition and getting outside," Gilliland said. "They hung a carrot out to me. They said if I can get below 270, they can get me a handcycle. Last year, in April of 2006, I was weighing 242 and they ordered the handcycle. I got it in August, started riding in the summer, and didn't get serious about competing in the Sadler's Ultra Challenge until January."

Sadler's Ultra Challenge

The Sadler's Ultra Challenge staged its 23rd race this past summer. It runs from Fairbanks to Anchorage, and features handcyclists and wheelchair racers. The race is 267 miles, performed in eight stages.

Not just anyone gets in and stays in. Competitors must meet qualifying standards, and during the event standards must be achieved.

In any competition, competitors must be smart, know their mission and find ways to make it happen whether paralyzed or not. Gilliland excelled mentally.

"I found a treadmill with the motor not working, and put the front wheel on it and started cranking," Gilliland said. "I got to the point where I could crank four hours a day, get my heart rate at 160 a minute. I did conditioning until I could get on the bike trails.

"In the meantime, I got in contact with Challenge Alaska. I heard about the (Sadler's) challenge, and talked to Challenge Alaska in Anchorage. Because it was my first time they wanted to be sure I wouldn't fall out on the first day."

He was also regularly seeing the folks at Frontier Therapy Services. They became a sponsor, along with the Ladies Auxiliary Eagles and Peninsula Medical Center.

During training, he met up with Ian Lawless of the U.S. Handcycling Federation, who helps put the Sadler's race together.

"We went over what I was doing with my training," Gilliland said. "I was weighing down to 220. Shortly after that, I got out on the bike paths in Kenai. In April, that bike path is not very comfortable in the rain and wind. I went and bought neoprene waders so I could stay warm."

But he didn't relent not even knowing, as McDonald confirmed, if his training methods would help him achieve the level of fitness required just to get into the race.

Gilliland was required to do a 26-mile timed trial in less than 2 hours and have it documented. McDonald helped with the training and Gilliland knocked it out with more than a quarter-hour to spare.

"I started riding just between Kenai and Soldotna on the bike trail, then ventured out further, leaving the Thompson Park area and heading north to the end of the bike trail in Nikiski and back. A lot of people got to where they would beep their horns, and every beep, that gave me another gear to go faster and longer."

Ironically, all this was with a handcycle for trail riding not racing.

"The handcycle they got me, was a real nice recreational setup for trail riding," Gilliland said. "This was a recreational handcycle, and it has a lot to be desired when it comes to a road race. I found out the difference between real road racing and trail riding. The VA set me up and I'm so very thankful for that."

Outfitted with more proper equipment, Gilliland was still fighting the bulge along the way.

"My goal was to start the race at 185 pounds, but I only made it down to 190," Gilliland said. "I've continued to do a bit of riding, not as hot and heavy, but riding four to five days a week. Right now, I'm down to 175, right where I want to be."

His buddies at Frontier are hardly surprised.

"He was dedicated, doing 30 miles a day in the pouring rain," said Damon Hastings, a physical therapist at Frontier.

Hastings remembers one day in particular when Gilliland needed a towel and how.

"There was one day, he was miserable," Hastings said. "He had a make-shift poncho and neoprene waders and had done about 23 miles. He was soaking wet. He was afraid to come into the office."

Among many things, Hastings said Gilliland is resilient and consistent.

"He saw what he wanted, got some sponsors, and found it all and made it happen," Hastings said.

Week of racing

Gilliland's race was exhilarating if nothing else. In his division, he finished fifth among nine competitors. He's been told he's the first from the Kenai Peninsula to complete the race. His sister Judy and a childhood friend followed him all the way, and his older brothers Allen and David were there at the finish.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Gilliland said. "Coming out of Fairbanks, the two stages are 52 or 53 miles apiece. The hill coming out of Homer? You have five or six throughout those 50-some miles. You get a few downhills, and you're really happy when you get them. I questioned my sanity, because going up the hills I was barely able to get 3 miles per hour. But going down, I'd be doing about 45."

His handcycle has 27 gears, and all get used.

"This is the longest and hardest wheelchair and handcycle race in the world," Gilliland said. "I had no idea, but the quality level of worldwide athletes is incredible."

Many are the same who not only compete but take medals in the world national competition and in the Paralympics.

His bonus at the race was finding a nurse volunteer who had helped him while he was hospitalized in Anchorage.

"Ten years ago when I was in the hospital for six weeks, with rehab and all that, I met a lot of wonderful people," Gilliland said. "Lynnda Edwards was a nurse there. We said we'd keep in touch, and of course we didn't. Ten years later, I go to race in Sadler's, lo and behold guess who's volunteering and has been for the last four years? This type of cycling, there are problems that need tending to. She gives time as a volunteer and nurse. It was neat to run across her again. Funny how it's a small world after all."

Life-saving competition

For anyone who doesn't believe competition at any age is good for you, Gilliland is testament that there is fruit in the labor.

Competition to Gilliland means "Just getting out there and competing, seeing what you can do, being a true sportsman, giving it all you can and knowing you did when you finish.

"I've always loved the individual sports. I used to wrestle. You're on a team, but you're on the mat by yourself. Power lifting, it's only you under the bar. It's the same with handcycling.

"Competition gives you a goal and you have to dig within yourself, you decide if you want to hurt a little more or not. It's just finding within yourself what it means to go on."

When Gilliland became hospitalized six days after his 36th birthday, questions about how he would move on through life were unanswered both for him and his supporters.

His family, which includes daughter Amber and son Randy, didn't waver.

"He had a purpose to get up and get outside," McDonald said of finding handcycling. "He came to life. He used to ride a bike, go horseback riding. It all disappeared."

"If I didn't have other things in my day," Gilliland said, "I'd just go and go and go just because you can. Getting on the handcycle after not being out for nine years, it's like being in prison, it's a . . I don't know if I can put it into words.

"My old life is re-energized in a different way. It's just a different way of reliving in the world of competition."

Gilliland hopes others who might need assistance will find Challenge Alaska (challengealaska.org) as a resource worth contacting. For him, it's part of the difference in having a life with paralysis but not being paralyzed in life.

"He's a got a new gleam in his eyes," Hastings said. "He's happy. He realized he can hold up, that he can hold his own. He's had a great attitude the whole time."

Transverse myelitis affects nervous system

Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord. The term myelitis refers to inflammation of the spinal cord; transverse simply describes the position of the inflammation, that is, across the width of the spinal cord.

Attacks of inflammation can damage or destroy myelin, the fatty insulating substance that covers nerve cell fibers. This damage causes nervous system scars that interrupt communications between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

Information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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