August 31, 2011

Drew Brantley: Raisin Hope Ride will be special for Carolina man

An avid cyclist, the now 54-year-old Paul Battenfield was training for a long-distance ride near his Waynesville, N.C., home on Aug. 14, 2010, when his bicycle collided with a dog on the road. The accident that followed pummeled his body, including damage to his spinal cord that sent him to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, a hospital that specializes in treatment of spinal and brain injuries.

Although he recovered from his paralyzing injuries, Battenfield was bound to a wheelchair for a time. But one of his doctors in Atlanta was Gerald Bilsky, who had also treated Dalton cyclist Saul Raisin, who suffered similar injuries while racing professionally in the first stage of the Circuit de la Sarthe in France in 2006.

“Whenever I’m aware a patient is a cyclist, it’s not unusual for me to call Saul or his parents,” Bilsky said. “Saul is passing through here a fair amount. Saul is a good guy. He’s a very nice person. He’s more than willing to meet people. And in the cycling world, people know who he is.”

That included Battenfield, who was at the Shepherd Center with his wife, Lisen Roberts, when he first met face to face with Raisin.

“I knew who he was just from racing and following the big events,” Battenfield said. “When he came, he spent about an hour with us. And we didn’t just talk about cycling, but about being at the Shepherd Center. It was really inspiring.”

But during their visit, Raisin also talked about the annual Raisin Hope Foundation Ride, which will take off for the fifth year 8 a.m. Saturday at Prater’s Mill with courses of six, 15, 45 and 60 miles. And for Raisin, talking about the charity event wasn’t just a way to share their interest in cycling. It also gave Battenfield a task.

“I said, ‘Paul, my goal for you is to be in the Raisin Hope Ride next year,’” Raisin said. “And you know what, he’s going to be there. He’s a true testimony.”

For Battenfield’s wife, Raisin’s task seemed like a little too much to hope for at the time.

“I was sitting there listening to that, and my husband was in his power wheelchair,” Roberts said. “I thought it was a sweet thought, but I didn’t believe it.”

But Raisin said it was just part of what the Raisin Hope Foundation — which reaches out to victims of traumatic brain injuries and their loved ones — is all about.

“That’s our mission,” Raisin said. “We try to give back hope to people who’ve lost it. When you have spinal cord or brain injuries, it’s something you and your family go through together. It’s unbearable.”

Some brain and spinal cord injuries would not allow for the kind of hope Raisin suggested, but for those where recovery could lead to such  activity, a little extra encouragement can be a big help, Bilsky said.

“Mr. Battenfield had an incomplete type of injury and was clearly making gains,” Bilsky said. “In those cases, as much as we can do, a little extra motivation — that’s an additional connection.”

As Battenfield made progress, returning home in October — still needing to use his wheelchair — he also took another piece of advice from Raisin with him.

“He said, ‘You’ll feel so much better when you get home and get home and get on the bike,” Battenfield said. “You’ll want to get on the bike as soon as you can.’ The day after I got home, I set my bike up on a trainer. He was right. It did feel a lot better, just going through the motions and spinning a little bit.”

But actually returning to riding his bike took time. A counselor at Asheville Middle School, he missed the entire year of work while recuperating.

“It wasn’t possible for him to ride independently,” Roberts said. “I had to help him down the stairs when he was using his wheelchair. I had to help him get on the bike. Once I got him up on the bike, he could pedal. He was slowly building up his stamina. Eventually he was able to get down there and ride the bike by himself.”

Battenfield, who returned to limited rides near his home in June, also said he was encouraged after reading “Tour de Life,” written by Raisin with David Shields, which details Raisin’s road back from injury.

“I did get a copy of Saul’s book at the Shepherd Center after I met him,” Battenfield said. “I finished reading it after I got home. His whole story is amazing — what he went through. It parallels with my own. We even have the same injuries with the shoulder and the same side ... But reading about what he went through, learning to walk again, it was the exact same thing I was going through.

“If I had not known there was another person who had gone through the same thing, I might not have been as positive as I was. ‘Maybe I can do it.’ That’s what I took from it.”

The Raisin Hope Ride is the realization of a nearly year-old challenge for Battenfield and the continuation of a five-year mission for the foundation. You can find out more about participating — the cost is $35 per cyclist, with ages 12 and under $10 — at raisinhope.org.

Battenfield said he will at least do the 15-mile course Saturday, and maybe more while realizing Raisin’s goal.

“I thought when he said it, anything’s got to be possible,” Battenfield said. “If he’s saying something like that, I’ll make it happen. No one had ever told me that. The people at the Shepherd Center never told me, ‘You’ll walk out of here,’ and they never said, ‘You’ll be in a wheelchair forever.’

“What Saul said, I felt like it was left was left up to me. I’ve always had a positive attitude about it. At the time Saul visited, I was taking everything day to day. When he said that, it was a good goal to have.”

Drew Brantley is a sports writer at The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at drewbrantley@daltoncitizen.com.

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