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Feeling alive again - Silverdale woman with lung disease finds strength ... from a bike.
The waves crashed against the shore, boats pulled into dock.
It was about seven years ago, and Sharon O’Hara, alone, rested her legs in Port Townsend.
“I sat there and felt alive,” she said of the moment when she found herself alone with her thoughts. “The bike got me there.”
Her recumbent tricycle — a three-wheeled bike that positions the rider in a laid-back reclining position — did a lot more than physically get her through a three-day trek.
Although she had covered quite a few miles already, the scene and her mindset were a thousand miles from where she started. It was the first time she had left her house in seven years. Now planing a cross-country trip this summer, she credits riding with making her feel like a functioning person again.
O’Hara, 71, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease brought on by 40 years of smoking cigarettes.
In 1997, she was at the point where she was crawling across her kitchen floor to reach pet food to feed her dogs, gasping for breath.
She was admitted to Harrison Medical Center and came to the realization that she had to kick her smoking habit started at age 17 growing up in East Park. The Bremerton-raised Silverdale woman hasn’t smoked a cigarette since, but the damage to her lungs had been done. After quitting smoking, she gained 100 pounds. Breathing was difficult. She didn’t think she could continue on. For a woman who opened her own business in her mid-twenties, Village Vanity, a salon in Silverdale that she sold 30 years ago — and had three children — she reckoned she had a full life.
In her mind, it made sense: She was waiting to die.
“In my mind, God was saying ‘You can’t breathe so you can’t move.’ I just accepted that,” O’Hara said last week in her garage, surrounded by tricycles. “I wanted to die because no one talked to me about what I have.”
As the temperatures inch upward — slowly — more and more are taking to the paths and roads on their self-powered conveyances. And O’Hara’s message to those who think they are down for the count is simple: Find a bike that will work for you, and get going.
“They make a person come alive again,” she said.
In O’Hara’s case, she found an online support group. She did her research on the disease. She now uses a bipap machine nightly that provides her with oxygen. And although biking had never been something she was interested in — she was a horse person — she discovered the recumbent tricycle and began to exercise. In 2005, a year after she rode around Port Townsend with members of the American Lung Association, she went riding with the West Sound Cycling Club. Despite not being able to keep up with the cyclists on their two-wheel upright bikes, one rider stayed back and helped give her the motivation to continue. Recently she hasn’t been cycling, but volunteers doing publicity while another member is on a bike tour.
For those familiar with biking, it is a familiar story: redemption and a second chance on spokes.
“It can be a very freeing experience to get out and about and do things under your own power,” said Tim Baker, vice president and ride coordinator of the club. “Being in good shape is the biggest antidepressant that you can get your hands on.”
West Sound Cycling Club has about 135 members with residents in Central Kitsap and Bremerton as well as up north to Bainbridge Island and as south as Olalla. The club hosts weekly Saturday rides that can range in distance from 20 to 60 miles, Baker said. There are also weekday rides, one an introductory ride and another a women’s group, said Lee Derror, the club’s president. Both said that members of the club cycle for various reasons. There’s a large contingent of commuter cyclists who are peddling away from the negative effects of automobiles. There are recreational and social riders. There are also those who train to race or cycle in endurance competitions where they ride 200 miles in a day.
Each rider gets something unique out of it, Derror said.
“Personally, I enjoy the sense of freedom.”
Even though Derror enjoys cycling, she does not necessarily enjoy the roads she uses to commute on. The bicycle-friendly roads in Kitsap County don’t always connect, forcing riders onto roads with heavy motor traffic. Being advocates for cycling, the club is currently working with the county to create a countywide bike map that will determine the best routes to get from one point to another as well as presenting other information including high-volume traffic areas. The hope of organizers is that those who are intimidated by riding with cars can plan routes less congested.
And while the map won’t be complete until about the end of the year, Kitsap cyclists are looking forward to the season. Some are increasing their mileage in preparation for the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic at the beginning of July, a two-day, 200-mile tour. Closer to home there is the Tour de Kitsap, July 31, that the club organizes that coincides with Whaling Days in Silverdale.
But with last summer’s chilly weather, and a spring so far marked by wind and rain, some are struggling to find the motivation to get out and ride.
“Weather of course makes a difference,” Baker said. “There are people who don’t ride year-round and put the bikes away in winter.”
Although O’Hara has six recumbent tricycles that have been idle in her garage for more than one winter, she plans to get back into cycling. And not just riding a few loops around her neighborhood. O’Hara plans to ride a tricycle with an electric motor that assists her pedaling to Washington, D.C. and back — the ride that she set out to accomplish with the American Lung Association six years ago but ended up dropping out of after paying the registration fee, because she didn’t think she was fit enough. Now she will begin the two-month trek on June 5, her birthday.
“Nothing is getting in my way this year,” O’Hara said. “All we have is time. We can’t wait for a promise of a better tomorrow.”
Charles O’Hara, Sharon O’Hara’s husband, has some reservations about the summer ride but supports his wife. His concerns include that fact that on a recumbent tricycle, she will be at the level of vehicles’ exhaust pipes, and also that she will be riding alone.
“She is a doer,” Charles O’Hara said. “When she sets about to do something, she puts everything into it.”
From doing exercises in the pool with a swim coach four days a week, she is preparing to strengthen her body.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m going to D.C.,” Sharon O’Hara said. “How many people would do something if they knew what was ahead?”
Cycling with lung disease
Some might think that those with chronic lung disease can’t handle vigorous exercise.
But even those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly called COPD, can benefit from exercise like cycling.
“It’s an important part of improving their lives. When people have COPD, it’s easy for them not to exercise and to become deconditioned and get into a negative spiral,” said Dr. J Randall Curtis, professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary and critical care at the University of Washington. “Exercise doesn’t reverse the destruction in the lungs, but it improves the muscles and heart and everything else, so they are able to do a lot more.”