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How cycling helped me deal with ill health

Hi, I’m Debbie and I am 52 years old. I am medically retired and spent my life working as a dentist, first with the Royal Air Force and then the NHS Community Dental Service. I was diagnosed with the neuro-developmental condition Dyspraxia 2 years ago and Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder four years previously.

Since my retirement I have been trying to make sense of my health conditions,  finding ways to live with them and cope better with the additional challenges of middle age and menopause.

My hypermobility and dyspraxia have always been there but never understood. I was a sickly child, who was diagnosed with scoliosis.  I had lots of physiotherapy and seemed to grow out of many of my childhood issues.

I was a socially awkward, shy and sensitive child but I was studious and keen to do something useful and helpful for others.

 PE at school was a struggle because so much of it was competitive but I started enjoying things like swimming, running, and hill walking as I went through my teens and onto university.  I  gained a place at the University of Bristol to study Dentistry. In hindsight, this was not a great career choice  with my undiagnosed  hypermobility but I found I was good at it even if it took a lot out of me.

Being hypermobile means many of my joints are more lax than normal and I rely on muscle strength to keep my joints stable which places extra stress on the body. Being unaware of all this, I got used to working hard and pushing through pain and discomfort and I guess assumed that was normal and  everyone around me was doing the same.

My time in the Royal Air Force was good as I could practice high quality dentistry for service personnel and participate in sport and  adventurous training . I started to notice I was struggling with a lot of pain in my knees when doing some of these activities and walking poles became vital to help me cope.  Gradually the more adventurous activities have fallen by the wayside, but cycling and  walking are things I have been able to carry on with and enjoy.

I started cycling properly when I was living in Germany and I’m sure being able to ride on dedicated cycle paths made all the difference. I was always a nervous cyclist as a kid, not confident to ride on roads, and I suspect dyspraxia and Hypermobility played a part in my lack of confidence.

Once I had my  children I enjoyed using my bike with a trailer to ferry them to playgroup and even  to school in the early  years.  I carried on using the trailer for several years for trips to the supermarket.

Following my medical retirement I got quite depressed but recovered and  started to retrain in Therapeutic Counselling at a local FE College. Unfortunately, ill health caught up with me and led me to take some time out and in 2017 I had knee surgery which took quite a while to recover from and I needed crutches for quite a long time. I gained my formal diagnosis of Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder from a specialist Rheumatologist and started to understand the links between Hypermobility and other health issues I was struggling with.

In 2018-19 I returned to my counselling training by going to the University of South Wales and  passed the Postgraduate Course  in Counselling Skills. This has helped me understand current theories about the impact of stress and trauma on the body and how counselling, psychotherapy and related therapies help.

In the middle of this course I discovered I had torn my posterior tibialis tendon in my left ankle. I’m not sure how it happened; I suspect I was doing too much of the wrong type of exercise.

Initially I was given a Boot to wear to stabilise my ankle but wearing it led to a fatigue and pain flare so the podiatrist very kindly made me a custom fitting brace I could wear in my shoes and I started using crutches to help me walk. It was a depressing and difficult time for me and I was quite frustrated at not being able to do the things I wanted to do.

Then I started to look at what exercise I could do rather than dwelling on the fact I couldn’t walk very well or ride my bike anymore. My physiotherapist encouraged me to go to the gym and referred me to hydrotherapy.  I enjoyed the hydrotherapy and realised the heat in the jacuzzi at my local gym really helped me loosen my stiff achy muscles and getting into a cool water pool lifted my spirits and energy levels. I began swimming and pool walking, starting very slowly and then gaining strength, managing to get up to about 30 -40 lengths a session.

I realised I wasn’t enjoying the gym so much but wanted to find a way to get back on some sort of bike. Having spent time living in Germany with the RAF in the 1990s I had seeing people on Recumbent Bikes and wondered if anything like that would suit me. A quick internet search led me to discover Wheels for All and they not only had a branch in Gloucester but were soon to participate in an Activities day at Oxstalls Tennis Centre.

I went along to this activity day and I spotted exactly what I was looking for in the form of the Amtryke Recumbent Trike. The lovely staff members allowed me to try various Trikes out but the Amtryke stood out as the best for me with its comfortable seat position and hand controls which didn’t put pressure on my hands, wrists, elbows or shoulders.

Riding the Amtryke brought back memories of playing on go carts as a kid and gave me back a sense of freedom, optimism and achievement that this was something I could do. It would help me gain strength and improve my fitness levels.

I applied to join Gloucestershire Wheels for All which has enabled me to borrow the Amtryke at the sessions at Blackbridge Athletics Track and in the Forest of Dean. It’s also been nice to get to know some of the other cyclists and volunteers who also regularly attend the sessions.

In August 2019 I had another major surgery and was very unwell after it due to post op complications.  Knowing I could go back to riding the Amtryke when I was well enough was a real positive when things were very difficult. It was such a relief to return to Blackbridge and manage a few laps of the track, to see MaryClare’s friendly face and the team of volunteers who help with the bikes, and all my fellow bike and trike riders.  

Since returning to Wheels for All I have built up to cycling up to 12km in a session and I monitor my progress on my Fitbit watch. I was also able to go back to swimming and pool exercise 3 months after my operation. I have built up my walking with the use of walking poles, the ankle brace and orthotics, although walking remains more painful and tiring than cycling.

When the news came that Gyms and Swimming Pools were going to have to close due to lockdown in March, this was hard for me as I really felt so much benefit from being in the pool. Then the sad news came that Gloucester Wheels for All were also suspending operations. I understood the need but was sorely going to miss the Amtryke.

 When MaryClare contacted me and asked if I’d like to borrow the Amtryke I was overwhelmed with gratitude that she had thought to make such a lovely offer. I jumped at the opportunity and arranged to collect “Number 23” from Blackbridge. She is currently housed in my garage and I am using her for my daily exercise session. I have come up with various routes around the cycle tracks around Gloucester Business Park, Coopers Edge, and occasionally stray over the Motorway Bridge as far as Lobleys Drive Park. I have cycled more than 200 km over the Lockdown period  and get many admiring and some puzzled glances from children and adults as I pass by.

A Photo of me a few weeks ago getting ready to ride out for my daily exercise.

I am very aware that Wheels for All needs donations to keep going so I decided to contribute to the LeJog Challenge (cycling the length of the route from Lands’ End to John O’ Groats’ to raise money) as the Group had worked hard in their challenge and I thought they and the fund might appreciate a bit of a boost.

I feel a real sense of privilege in being trusted with the loan of the Amtryke and am looking forward to the time when we all  return to Blackbridge and the Forest for more fun and adventures. I am now planning to buy my own folding recumbent trike to use for local shopping trips, to carry on with my exercise routine and to take for days out to the Forest of Dean with my family but will be continuing to attend GWFA events.

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