Sunday, October 12, 2003

As good as it gets

When our writer is cycling for 108 miles, he won't be alone

I have to find a place for the picture. There is so much else to do: the training rides, the proper nutrition, Advil for a barking knee. What you learn at age 46, when you are attempting to ride a bicycle for 108 miles, is that you aren't 26. Pain is a much bigger part of your life.

But, back to the picture. Where will it go? Where, on my 21-pound, aluminum-framed, 24-speed mondo-bike is there a place for a 3-by-5 photo of Ric Doyle, my friend and my hero?

He is to blame for all of this. If he didn't have such a big heart, such outsized courage and a disposition you could sell at Graeter's, my knee wouldn't be reminding me of my age.

Ric Doyle of Sharonville has leukemia and scleroderma. Here Ric shows off some of his prized sports memorabilia including a Steve Young autographed football (left) and Lou Holtz autographed hat and ball (right).
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
I wouldn't be riding 108 miles in Arizona on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, to raise money for research. Mr. Ibuprofen would not be my new best friend, narrowly edging Mr. Ice Pack and his evil twin, Mr. Analgesic Balm. I wouldn't be wearing one of those silly-looking Buck Rogers helmets.

Nor would I understand the joy that pain sometimes brings.

Here's what happened to my friend Ric Doyle:

On Oct. 13, 1995, doctors told him he had leukemia. He was 36 years old. Three days later, he started chemotherapy. He had a bone marrow transplant in April 1997. His mouth was filled with sores, a reaction to the transplant. They were so bad, a dermatologist took pictures of them, to show to med students. "This is as bad as it gets," he told them.

Ric was on morphine for two weeks and was fed through a tube.

At one point, his kidneys failed. "Whatever could happen," he said, "happened with me." He was taking 30 pills a day, so many pills he spent as much time organizing them as taking them. He had platelet transfusions.

A year after the transfusion, Ric went back to work. Scleroderma attacked him next, another offshoot of the transfusion. Webster's says scleroderma is "a chronic skin disease marked by rigid patches which cause a hidebound condition." Ric just knows it locked up his lower left side.

He still has it. Next April 30, barring a relapse, Ric will be declared free of leukemia. It will be a miracle of will, medicine and spirit, a heady cocktail of the best we humans can offer.

The scleroderma can't be cured, though, only managed. Ric can't stand for long periods, can't cut the grass or clean the house or play much golf. His immune system is still down. If Ric gets a fever, he's back in the hospital. He still swallows 12 pills a day.

He is on permanent disability, a prisoner in his own skin.

Here's what he does about it:

Laughs as hard as he ever did. Makes you laugh along with him. Goes to his kids' games, cooks for his family. Plays a little golf. Makes the best of it. Lives the truism: It's not what life gives you. It's how you handle it.

Before his bone marrow transplant, the parishioners at his church, St. Michael's in Sharonville, held a prayer service. The place was full. Players from Ric's son Brian's baseball team showed up in uniform.

Fundraisers were held: a dinner-dance at the Sharonville Community Center, a cookbook. Signed footballs arrived from two of Ric's heroes, Lou Holtz and Steve Young. "People don't get to see this, usually," Ric said. "How many people they've touched."

He has been touched by the perspective angel, a force familiar to many veterans of tragedy. "I've met some of the greatest people: Doctors, nurses, friends with leukemia." He has seen love's true face, in the gaze of family and friends "who put their lives on hold to take care of me."

If the scleroderma hadn't slowed Ric, experience would have. He speaks to other leukemia patients, those not as close to being cured as he is. "Enjoy life," Ric tells them. Enjoy people. Your wife, your kids. "I enjoy everybody I meet."

Keep your faith, he says. "Understand you can't do it alone." Which sounds wise even if you're not sick.

Why does it always take something bad to happen before we realize how good we have it? Beats me. That's why I need a place on the bike for Ric's mug shot. Since May, I've been adopted into the peculiar bike culture of sport drinks, carb-loading and unnaturally tight riding outfits.

When Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, I announced to my 13-year-old, "He's training for Tucson."

I bought a new bike and, god help me, little hard-soled bike riding shoes. I buy "power" snacks. I stand in the aisle at the store, reading their labels, pitting them against each other, carbo to carbo. I ride 75 miles a week. I'm weird like a fitness freak.

I don't know what Ric Doyle knows, though. I don't yet see with his clarity the richness of life. All I can do is ride the bike and find a place for the picture.

What has illness taught you, I asked Ric. "I know I can lick anything if I put my mind to it."

Knee problem? What knee problem?

To donate

Anyone wishing to donate to leukemia research in Ric Doyle's name can do so by sending a check to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, 105 W. 4th St., Suite 900, Cincinnati, OH, 45202. Attention: Angela Brock



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