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Frank Gray

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John Shank suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed, but a recumbent bike got him back into cycling.

Only the open road for cyclist after stroke

Three years ago, John Shank was a successful oral maxillofacial surgeon and avid cyclist, an active man pursuing a career he loved.

Then, in one moment, he lost it all. He was on vacation, had just finished a bicycle ride and was getting off his bike when he suffered a massive stroke.

There was doubt, but Shank survived. The stroke, though, left him unable to speak, read or write. He can’t drive. He is unable to move his right hand and suffered a weak right leg.

It was about nine months after the stroke that friend and fellow doctor and cyclist John Bormann visited and saw Shank sitting on the sofa watching reruns of M*A*S*H. He had to get him off the couch, Bormann said.

So several friends pitched in and bought Shank a recumbent bicycle, a klunky two-rider affair that got Shank back on the road again.

Shank, though, didn’t like the bike. So Shank’s family pitched in and bought him a high-end recumbent, a three-wheeled model.

It wasn’t without some trepidation, though. Shank was having a major seizure each week. Would riding a bike worsen the seizures? What if he suffered a seizure while riding and rolled in front of a car?

Finally, said his wife, Cristy, everyone, including Shank, decided “it is what it is. He needs to live his life. He can sit on a sofa and watch reruns, but that’s not living.”

Shank started taking to the road with fellow riders, and he, Bormann and others set a goal: Get in good enough shape to do RAGBRAI, the annual great bicycle ride across Iowa, a trek that stretches from 400 to 500 miles, depending on the year, up to 100 miles a day. More than 20,000 riders show up each year, and Bormann, who is originally from Iowa, has done it 14 times.

Doing the ride might have sounded unrealistic, but Shank has always been goal-oriented, his wife said. He went to school for 13 years to be a surgeon. Now RAGBRAI became a goal.

The training wasn’t without its problems. Shank couldn’t grip the handlebar with his right hand, and it would fall and drag on the ground. So Velcro was used to secure his hand to the bar.

Early on he was rubbing his right leg against the chain, cutting himself, so they tweaked the bike and designed a guard for his leg.

Before long, Shank was riding 40 and more miles a day, pedaling to places like Hicksville and back. One day, after riding 48 miles in wind and rain, Bormann said, Shank insisted on riding two more miles. Other riders quit. He did the extra two so he could hit 50 miles.

Meanwhile, the seizures began to diminish from once a week to one every couple of months.

Actually, the recumbent was a lifesaver for Shank.

“To have everything taken from him is overwhelming,” Cristy Shank said. “This is the one thing he can do that he did before the stroke.”

Well, RAGBRAI took place in the last full week of July, as usual. Shank was one of a group of nine that traveled to the far side of Iowa to do the ride together. The thought was that perhaps Shank would be able to ride a couple of days of the seven-day ride, or maybe ride every other day.

Instead, he rode the whole thing, all seven days, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.

“He came back grinning from ear to ear,” his wife said. “It’s the single most significant thing that’s happened since he had the stroke.”

To look at him, people might not understand just how sick her husband is, Cristy Shank said, and they don’t understand how hard it is to recover from a stroke. But maybe, she says, what he’s accomplished can be an inspiration to someone else.

Meanwhile, Shank and friends are still riding, and the Hilly Hundred, a brutal, two-day, 100-mile ride through the hills of southern Indiana, is Shank’s next goal.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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