Partnership with veterans facility puts former soldiers on the road to recovery

Campus bike donation program gives a lift to local veterans who are in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

L.A. Cicero Gilbert Ramirez

Gilbert Ramirez, readjustment counselor for the Men’s Trauma Recovery Program, which is offered by the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, picked up bicycles donated on White Plaza last month.

Those who donated their bikes last month during the annual student move-out process will rest assured that a number of the bikes they donated have gone to good causes. What they may not know is how some of those bicycles are currently being used.

A donation event held on White Plaza in June featured a special partnership with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, which uses some of those donated bicycles to help patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The White Plaza donation event was part of the Bicycle Donation and Rehabilitation program, and organizers hope it will be an ongoing partnership to reduce and overcome PTSD by cycling.

The collaboration is the result of efforts of Gilbert Ramirez, readjustment counselor for the Men's Trauma Recovery Program at the Veterans Affairs facility in Menlo Park, and Ariadne Scott, bicycle program coordinator at Stanford's Parking and Transportation Services.

The idea to give the donated bikes to the recovery program was Carolyn Helmke's, Scott's predecessor. Before she left last quarter, Helmke put the donation event into place while Stanford began looking for its next bicycle program coordinator. The university brought back Scott, who had held the job from 2001 to 2003.

During the 60- to 90-day Men's Trauma Recovery Program, weekly bike rides are included in an attempt to reduce the usual problems associated with PTSD, including isolation, depression, avoidance and anxiety. Ramirez, who created the bicycle rehabilitation regimen within the recovery program, was motivated by research suggesting that physical activity and exercise can have a powerful impact on mental health problems, such as PTSD and depression, along with many other physical health benefits.

Nathan Gorin, an Army sergeant from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, knows well the benefits cycling has provided him during his time in the Men's Trauma Recovery Program.

"I know that cycling fights depression—just that feeling you get when you get off the bike," Gorin said. "It's hard to feel depressed when you have that rush, that [euphoric] feeling. … And afterward, you set goals and create competition with yourself."

Ramirez feels that overall there is a great release of stress from patients and an increase in comfort. He also says that patients typically feel that the bicycle program complements the rest of their treatment and that they can experience these physical and emotional benefits for the rest of their lives. Patients who participate in the program usually decrease their symptoms of PTSD and discover a path to reconnect with their communities even after leaving the program.

The weekly bicycle rides within the recovery program began more than two and a half years ago, in the fall of 2005, when they were held only once a week. Today, the program leads one-hour bike rides three times a week, along with a monthly weekend group ride.

Though many have similar goals in eliminating their PTSD, each of the patients has different reasons for joining the bicycling rehabilitation regimen.

Al Shaffer, an air traffic controller from the Vietnam War, wanted to return to a familiar interest and hobby.

"I used to cycle before, and I made a commitment to myself to do things I used to love," Shaffer said. "Cycling here has been the biggest plus in my treatment. I'm in better physical shape that I was before. I've gained motivation and I have self-esteem."

Ramirez's program is part of a growing number of veterans hospitals across the United States making cycling a permanent part of their trauma recovery programs, according to Road 2 Recovery, a national program whose mission is to raise money to support cycling at military and VA locations.

"It is great that we can promote sustainability, recycling, mobility and wellness with the bicycles students are donating that they no longer need," Scott said.

Scott said she was eager to follow through with the plan that Helmke had helped launch.

"I was enthusiastic about seeing the program through because I love bicycles and see that they are for so much more than recreational purposes," Scott said. "They can get people healthy, relieve stress, reduce auto emissions, clean the air for all to breathe and make people feel like a kid again."

Scott also worked with Nik Kaestner, Student Housing's sustainability coordinator, to promote the White Plaza donation event, which took place June 12-13 as part of Kaestner's Living Green outreach program, which seeks to encourage graduating seniors to recycle whatever they can.

Scott noted that approximately 75 bikes were collected from various locations on campus, most of which were resold in conjunction with the Salvation Army or donated to Goodwill. Of the dozen bikes collected at White Plaza for the veterans, only a handful passed muster, based on their condition, with inspections and necessary repairs done at the hospital.

"This was a great opportunity to partner with them and to get the word out about the benefits of this program," Scott said. The Men's Trauma Recovery Program continues to admit new patients regularly and the bicycling rehabilitation regimen remains a huge success, she said. Scott also added that the veterans facility has a Women's Trauma Recovery Program as well and patients in both participate in the bike program and bike rides. She said more donations of women's bikes are needed.

Some patients have completed up to 35 rides and a total of 430 miles during their time in the program. One lost 25 pounds within the first month of treatment after an improvement in diet and an increase in physical activity. Others simply rediscover themselves.

Nicholas Lerma, an infantry platoon Marine sergeant who served in Iraq, was a long-distance runner, until he suffered severe muscle and joint injuries in the war.

"I couldn't concentrate on any other sports besides running, but I couldn't run anymore. When I got on a bike here, it was proof that I wasn't physically limited, that I could still do something besides running," Lerma said.

Ramirez hopes a group of patients from the program will be able to participate in the Road 2 Recovery bicycle ride this September. The West Coast ride will begin in San Francisco Sept. 28 and end in Los Angeles Oct. 4.

Further down the road, Ramirez said he also wants to maintain the connection with patients after they leave the trauma program.

"We would like to set up a support group in the future, for patients who want to continue biking after they leave the program, and we would like to add more days for bicycling to the program, with more miles," Ramirez said. "We are also looking for sponsors, someone to purchase jerseys, etc."

Ramirez said there is a waiting list to get into his program, so he can certainly use more bikes. As of May 2008, there were 154 patients in the rehabilitation program. Though no date has been set for the next donation event, anyone who wants to donate a bicycle may contact Ramirez directly at (650) 493-5000 ext. 22918 or Gilbert.Ramirez@va.gov.

"It is impressive they have collectively logged almost 19,000 miles to date," Scott said. "And there are even more veterans in the program who also want to ride, but they need more bikes so they can participate. The program is really inspirational and I feel fortunate to help Gilbert with helping the veterans who are sometimes forgotten war heroes," Scott said.

And though individual health benefits of cycling may vary for each patient, Scott said the general outcome of the veterans program is clear.

"On one of the donation days, the group of veterans rode by," Scott said. "I think the smiles on their faces were an indication they were on the road to recovery."

Gabrielle Hadley is a writing intern at the Stanford News Service.