Twist of fate flips the role for iconic Pittsburgh cyclist Danny Chew
November 18, 2016 10:48 AM
Danny Chew struggles to lift up his leg after he finished a rehabilitation session.
Danny Chew, co-founder of the Dirty Dozen bike race, vowed to ride one million miles in his life. He works to regain his strength during a rehabilitation session at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He was paralyzed from the chest down after breaking two vertebrae his neck in a bicycling accident on the Sunday before Labor Day this year.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Danny Chew does not believe in religion. He is an avowed atheist.
“I believe in biking,” said Mr. Chew, 54, the Pittsburgh icon known for his lifetime goal of riding 1 million miles and for co-founding and running the city’s famed Dirty Dozen bike race, which has its 34th annual running on Saturday, Nov. 26.
A year ago he met Attila Domos. He liked him immediately. They became fast friends, riding together, texting and messaging almost daily with tallies of their latest bike mileage.
“I thought: What a unique individual. He’s overcome so much. He had to be extremely tough mentally,” Mr. Chew said of Mr. Domos.
He credits Mr. Chew — who had done a 24-hour ride himself before and twice won the arduous Race Across America bike race — with inspiring him and preparing him for the challenge such a ride would pose physically and mentally.
“He was my mentor,” Mr. Domos said of Mr. Chew.
On Sept. 4, two weeks after Mr. Domos set that record, Mr. Chew blacked out on a bike ride with a friend near Akron, Ohio, and ran off the road into a ditch. In the resultant crash, he damaged two vertebrae, permanently paralyzing him from the chest down.
The irony of the situation is not lost on either man.
“I was his inspiration,” Mr. Chew said of Mr. Domos. “Now he’s mine.”
In the nearly three months since his life was changed forever, Mr. Chew has battled through the physical and emotional challenges virtually all people who suffer such a traumatic injury do.
From problems with his blood pressure, to breathing issues and bed sores, to the difficulty building up his strength to move himself from the bed to a wheelchair and learning how to change his own catheter every four hours, it has been a daily physical challenge.
Helping Danny Chew
Danny Chew’s family estimates they will have to raise as much as $250,000 to both renovate the family home to accommodate his needs and to buy a specially equipped van for his transportation.
There are a host of ongoing fundraisers to help:
At 4:30 p.m. Sunday at SouthSide Works Cinema there is a screening of the 2016 Race Across America documentary, followed by a showing of Rick Sebak’s WQED 2010 Dirty Dozen documentary. Tickets can be purchased there or online at clevelandcinemas.com.
The family has also set up a general donation page to help at youcaring.com
Several friends and supporters have T-shirts, as well as a bike-racing jersey and a poster for sale to raise funds for Mr. Chew, all of which will be on sale either at Sunday’s movie fundraiser or at the start of the Dirty Dozen race on Nov. 26. You can also buy them online:
“The first couple of weeks, I was very suicidal,” Mr. Chew said last week in an interview at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he has been since late September. “It was because I was comparing myself now to my former life, where I could go anywhere, do anything.
“I had freedom. And to lose that freedom…” he said, his voice choking up and tears welling up in his eyes. “It was just a devastating blow to deal with.”
Mr. Chew said — and his family and friends all agreed — that he had never cried before his accident. Now he regularly gets choked up and cries when talking about his past life as an iconic cyclist who rode 20,000 miles a year or more, or the daunting challenges he has in front of him.
Earlier this year before the accident — to the surprise of no one — Mr. Chew was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s, a milder autism spectrum disorder. That helped explain much of his quirky personality, particularly the intense focus he has for numbers and anything else he turns his attention to, like biking.
But it also made the recent release of that deep vein of previously untapped emotion that much more surprising to those who know him best.
“No. I’d never seen him cry,” said his older sister, Carol Perezluha. “He was usually like Mr. Spock when it came to emotion, robotic, very logical.”
Ms. Perezluha said she and her brother, Tom, knew how deep the emotional wound was when they visited Mr. Chew in the intensive care unit at the hospital in Akron the first week after the accident, and he asked them, “that if he decided he didn’t want to go on that we’d respect his wishes.”
Mr. Chew said he was able to put those thoughts behind him thanks to the constant barrage of well-wishers who have visited, sent him cards, emailed him, texted him and posted messages on Facebook.
“It was realizing how many close friends and family I have, having friends that visit me from the Dirty Dozen, people I’d never even met, telling me thanks for creating the event, thank you for giving them one of the best days of their life,” he said, emotion and tears pouring out of him as he explained while sitting inclined — to help control his vacillating blood pressure — in his motorized wheelchair.
In a separate interview, he said that at one point he realized: “If I take my life, then I let everyone else down. So it’s just not fair to put everyone else through that.”
Elliot Roth, Mr. Chew’s doctor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago — a location his family chose despite its location away from Pittsburgh because it was the top-ranked facility of its kind in the country — said it is not unusual for patients who suffer paralyzing injuries to feel that way.
“It’s very common to have that sense of loss, to recognize that things aren’t what they were before,” said Dr. Roth, the medical director of the patient recovery unit at the institute.
But beyond that, he said: “What I’ve learned in decades of doing this with thousands and thousands of patients is to never assume what individuals’ reactions are going to be. Some people feel angry, some people feel guilty, many people do feel sad. But I’ve had occasional patients that say that this was actually a great event for them because that’s how they learned who was important to them, what was important to them.”
Mr. Chew’s statements about getting away from thoughts of despair and, instead, finding meaning and hope in family and friends and new goals for the future “is actually an important part of the recovery process,” Dr. Roth said.
About 10,000 to 12,000 people a year experience permanent, paralyzing injuries because of severe spinal cord damage every year in the United States, about 70 percent to 80 percent of them male. Overall, about 250,000 to 300,000 people in the United States are living with some form of permanent paralysis from severe spinal cord injury.
“We think it occurs more with males because of more risk taking,” Dr. Roth said.
Despite recent, hopeful advances in research to help people with paralysis, the road back for people with paralysis like Mr. Chew, for now, does not include the possibility of ever walking again.
“I expect it is most likely that he will remain paralyzed,” Dr. Roth said about Mr. Chew. “But I also expect that he will be able to be independent in his day-to-day activities, be able to take care of himself and, ultimately, be able to ride a hand-cycle, which is very important to him.”
Although Mr. Chew still struggles just to sit upright — with no control of most of his back muscles, balance is difficult — Dr. Roth and Mr. Chew’s therapists in Chicago noticed early on that he was a dream patient.
“Danny is one of the most competitive patients I have ever had,” said Kate Drolet, a physical therapist who works with him on most days at the institute, helping him learn how to maximize the physical ability he still has. “He’s very motivated. And that goes a long way.”
Mr. Chew’s favorite therapy sessions — he does about two to three hours every morning and every afternoon — are when Ms. Drolet lets him use the push wheelchair to make a circuit around the seventh floor where he resides and gets therapy.
A fellow patient worked out that every nine laps around the floor equals about a half mile. Early on, Mr. Chew’s “record” was three sessions of two laps each, with a couple minutes break to regulate his blood pressure.
On a recent Friday morning, though, he decided to push himself, doing three laps at a stretch, three times, with Mr. Chew asking a reporter to time each lap, and then insisting that the times be written down in a visitors’ log he keeps in his room.
Ms. Drolet was impressed. Not Mr. Chew, who sees it only as more motivation.
“How pathetic is this? The two-time winner of the Race Across America gets exhausted after a half mile in a wheelchair?” he said, somehow simultaneously smiling and tearing up as he says it.
With daily ups and downs at the institute, one constant these last three months has been Mr. Domos, whom Mr. Chew refers to as “my friend Attila.” They talk on the phone almost daily now, with Mr. Chew peppering Mr. Domos with questions, concerns and stories.
Mr. Domos said before the accident, he had regularly offered to let Mr. Chew ride his hand-cycle, something Mr. Domos had done with dozens of cyclists over the years.
Mr. Chew turned him down “every time,” Mr. Domos said. “He was the only person ever to say ‘no.’ ”
During their first phone conversation after the accident, Mr. Chew told him “that he should have said ‘yes’ ” to riding his hand-cycle.
Still, Mr. Chew sees no greater force at play in him meeting Mr. Domos when he did: “It’s just a coincidence.”
Mr. Domos said he is not religious either, but, “It’s things like this that would kind of make you think, well maybe there is such a thing as fate.”
“I mean think about this: A paralyzed guy is mentored by a bicyclist to break a world record. And then two weeks later the bicyclist breaks his neck and is paralyzed… Like, would you believe that if you saw that in the movie? That sounds a bit far-fetched. ‘Quit trying to tug on the heartstrings.’ You know what I mean?” Mr. Domos said.
Mr. Chew is expected to leave Chicago in the next couple of weeks to live with a friend until his family can raise enough money to make his Squirrel Hill home accessible for his wheelchair and limitations.
He won’t make it to this year’s Dirty Dozen bike race. But race organizers are trying to figure out a way he can be there, maybe at least announcing the start thanks to technology. And hopefully in future years he can be part of the race again.
Beyond that, one immediate goal is to someday soon get to ride with Mr. Domos, the two friends riding together in their hand-cycles.
Despite Mr. Domos telling him he may have to drop it, Mr. Chew insists it still will be in pursuit of the now slower grind of miles onward toward his 1 million mile lifetime goal.
He has already worked out the math. With about 780,000 so far, he figures he can go up to about 10,000 miles a year in a hand-cycle, and reach the goal by the time he is 77 or 78 “if I stay healthy.”
“That’s what keeps me going,” Mr. Chew said.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill
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