06/30/02 - Posted 11:48:02 PM from the Daily Record newsroom
By Matt Manochio, Daily Record
FLORHAM PARK - A few years ago Delbert Richardson had a dream of himself riding a bicycle near three landmarks: Seattle's Space Needle, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and the White House in Washington, D.C.
Richardson, now 49, of Wichita, Kan., was just coming to grips with being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that damages the myelin sheath that coats nerve cells, impairing their communication. Though rarely fatal, it is often progressive, gradually disabling those who have it.
The dream recurred four more times, Richardson told a group of nearly a dozen MS patients Saturday at the College of St. Elizabeth. Richardson, who said he was not a religious man but a spiritual one, said he knew the dream must mean something.
"I figured it was time for Delbert to do something," Richardson said.
Richardson had spent 20 years in the Army operating tanks and later ran his own construction company and worked as a field engineer. After he was diagnosed with MS in 1997 at the age of 44, he fell into depression and isolated himself from his wife and six daughters, he told the audience.
But Richardson said he was motivated enough by his recurring dream to convince himself to make that bicycle-riding vision a reality. So he prepared himself for a 5,100-mile trek across the country.
A few problems had to be dealt with first. Because his MS affected his balance, Richardson couldn't ride a standard bicycle. He also had to figure out how to transport his medication, which required refrigeration, with him.
A $7,000 grant from the Betaseron Champions of Courage organization helped pay for a three-wheeled recumbent trike - a foot-pedaled vehicle with two wheels up front and one in the back. Betaseron is a medication to treat MS that is produced by Berlex Laboratories in Montville.
Richardson operated the trike, which had a roof and side panels, from a reclining position only 6 inches off the ground. He carried a supply of medicine in a cooler operated by a motorcycle battery and also lugged a small trailer with camping gear and other necessities.
He said he decided to ride solo cross-country to escape from his isolation and depression, regain his confidence, spread awareness of the disease and meet other people with MS.
His journey began in Seattle, near the famed Space Needle. From there he made his way south to California to the Golden Gate Bridge, continued down through the state and crossed eastward into Arizona, making his way toward Washington, D.C.
"We can still do those things that we did before. We just have to look at it as a challenge and plan accordingly," Richardson said.
Richardson's journey, which began in April 2001, crossed 17 states in seven months, culminating in his arrival in the nation's Capitol on Nov. 7, 2001.
He was able to travel an average of 10 mph on flat ground, he said, but the journey wasn't a cake walk.
Multiple sclerosis can drain people of energy quickly, he said, and those afflicted with the illness must remain cool and not overexert themselves.
Richardson said he had four "flare-ups" along the way, one debilitating enough that he needed to be treated by a doctor in the Midwest. The doctor didn't tell him to stop, but to be smart and to pace himself.
Richardson said one of the best decisions he made was to veer slightly off course and visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where he met seven people with MS who were hiking to the bottom of the canyon.
Richardson said he never had any problems with passing motorists and found strangers very accommodating, with some even offering him a place to sleep in their homes.
Richardson now makes his living as a motivational speaker, and he is working on a book chronicling his travels.
He told the group that he is in the planning stages of another, even longer cross-country trip and that he also plans to go bungee jumping on his 50th birthday.
"I can. I will. I did it," Richardson said, summing up the outlook he has on life, and the outlook he hopes those with MS or other diseases can follow.
"I was very inspired," said Marie Flores, 44, a Vernon resident who was diagnosed with MS earlier this year.
"He answered a lot of my questions. He was very motivational to me. Just listening to his story gave me hope," Flores said.
Matt Manochio can be reached at (973) 428-6630.
Copyright 2002 Daily Record