ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Brad Campbell, a mild-mannered public relations executive from Fairview, has always had an epic adventurous side — at least in the back of his mind.
As the creative director for Market Connections, which helps to promote the happenings and scenic beauty of Transylvania County, Campbell, 60, enjoys experiencing the picturesque mountains himself by bike. A lifelong cyclist, he did always dream, however, of taking it up a notch and riding across the country. He thought about it. He talked with friends about it. But it just always seemed out of reach.
Until the day Campbell nearly lost his life.
On July 22, 2017, Campbell was on a routine, 60-mile bike ride with the Kirbo Cycling Group in the western part of Transylvania County. Recent rains had left a treacherous slice of gravel across the pavement.
“I didn’t have time to react. I felt the rear wheel move the slightest bit, then the next sensation was my head hitting the pavement. Two other cyclists fell as a result of my accident,” Campbell said.
“I was face down. I remember being stunned and knew I probably shouldn’t get up. My neck was hurting. I was really lucky there was a guy on the ride, George Stevens, who had first aid training. He said, ‘You’re not moving until the paramedics arrive.’ That probably prevented me from being paralyzed or saved my life, one of the two.”
In addition to shredded skin, bruises and a broken clavicle, Campbell broke his neck at the extremely critical C3 and C4 vertebrae, and bone fragments were found near his spinal cord.
His neurosurgeon, Jon Silver, performed fusion surgery that same night, and Campbell remained in the Mission Health trauma center for four days.
“They had to realign my neck and put in a metal cage to support my spinal cord, which remains to this day. They removed two discs and replaced them with donor bone. It was an amazing surgery,” Campbell said.
Not only was he emotionally jolted by the bike crash and trauma of surgery, but by the compassion of the medical staff, which he said was like being cared for “by family you didn’t know you had.”
When he was released into rehabilitation is when thoughts of his bucket-list bike trip took real shape.
“I thought of that quote, ‘We are not promised tomorrow.’ We do have to make the most of the time we have on this planet,” Campbell said. “I decided to do it, but I wanted it to have more meaning than just checking off a bucket list item.
Mark Stephen Langefeld, a physician’s assistant from Carolina Spine and Neurosurgery Center, told Campbell about the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
The Shepherd Center is a private, nonprofit hospital in Atlanta that specializes in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions, according to their website.
Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation, the Shepherd Center treats patients from around the country and the world with some of the most difficult case.
“Even though I didn’t require care from the Shepherd Center, I thought this was something I could do for people with even more challenging injuries than my own,” Campbell said. “It was time to do something with meaning.”
With the green light from Judyanne Campbell, his “saint” of a wife of 23 years, Campbell was back on his bike within eight weeks of the accident, getting in shape, and signed up with America By Bicycles, a touring company that supports groups on long-distance rides, carting their luggage during the day, and arranging for hotel stays and meals.
Starting out June 17, less than a year after his accident, Campbell and 33 new friends — a wide cross section of people from around the country, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada, including heart attack and cancer survivors, military and Vietnam veterans, school teachers, alpinists, attorneys, documentary producers, ranchers, and two bike mechanics, Rob Leeson and Robin Crandall from Asheville, among others, dipped their bikes in the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon.
Campbell paid for all expenses himself, with a mission to complete the ride and raise $20,000 for the Shepherd Center. So far, he’s raised more than $10,000, and he continues to match every contribution that comes in.
“That’s as important to me as riding across the United States,” he said.
The group took the northern route, hoping to stave off some of the summer heat. They rode for 50 days, covering 10 states and one Canadian Province (Ontario), 3,691 miles and climbed 121,500 feet - the vertical equivalent of ascending Mount Everest four times.
The highest elevation was Togwotee Pass, elevation 9,658 feet, that took the group up and over the Western Continental Divide, east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the Absaroka Mountains.
They stayed in a different hotel every night, and rode between 4.5-9 hours a day, averaging 80 miles a day, Campbell said. But there were some challenging days, including eight “century rides,” those longer than 100 miles. The longest day in the saddle was 120 miles while they were still in Oregon.
“My greatest fear was not falling, but not completing the ride,” he said. “Some days were more mentally tough than others. Cycling is its own therapy. I’d spend the first two hours of most mornings by myself, like a morning meditation, and then catch up with other riders.
“The middle of day was a little tougher. You had to slog through it. The last two hours weren’t bad because you knew you were heading toward the barn.”
One of the most challenging days was on the plains of Wyoming, which greeted the riders with spitting hot headwinds.
“And I had a really bad chest cold. You don’t have any choice when the goal is to ride every mile and not get in the van. I was really committed to that idea. You just have to tough it out,” Campbell said. “But we were so lucky in terms of weather. Only 8-10 of the 50 days on the road had significant rain, heat or wind,” he said.
The staff provided cookies and fresh fruit on the road, sort of like the domestiques in the Tour de France, (which was taking place at the same time). It gave riders a huge pick-me-up, along with the fellowships of the other cyclists, and the front-row view to America’s most stunning landscapes.
The group rode across the Badlands to see mesmerizing sunsets, stopped at Mount Rushmore, another bucket list item for Campbell, crossed Lake Michigan by ferry, crossed the Mississippi by bridge, and dipped into Canada for a gander at Niagara Falls.
Judyanne met Brad on Aug. 6 on Wallis-Sands State Beach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to help him dip his bike wheel into the Atlantic and celebrate his epic adventure, that was only about 40 years in the making.
“As special as it was to see the entire United States, it was the camaraderie that grew up around 30 complete strangers, and getting to know everybody really well that was really special,” he said. Fellow rider included NPR reporter Tom Gjelten. Five fellow riders were also cycling for a charity.
He said he couldn’t have made the trip without support from family, his buddies who helped get him back on the bike, and his boss Karen Tessier, who allowed him to take nearly two months off from work.
“I’ve got the scar on the front of my neck, the scar of gratitude. I’m thankful for my life and it gives me a perspective I don’t think I had before, making the most of every moment I have on this earth and to give back in some way,” Campbell said.
“A trip like this gives you an enormous sense of accomplishment and confidence that you’re capable of doing more than you think you can. Both the recovery from the neck injury and the ride itself, the power of positive thinking and trying to look at things in the most positive way that you can, has been for me really a wonderful thing. I’ve really tried to be a more positive person because I think it can make a difference in our lives.”
Before his journey, Campbell said the one word of caution from his doctors was “don’t fall.” He said he hasn’t fallen off his bike once since the accident.
“Since my injury, it’s become a lot more important to keep the rubber side down,” he said.
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com