Cumberland woman shares gift of accessible cycling

Cumberland woman shares gift of accessible cycling

Bob and Donna Furlong, of Rehoboth, Mass., left, with Bob and Cheryl Webster of Cumberland, pictured together the night they met. Webster has loaned Furlong her accessible tricycle, giving her the chance to cycle with her family as she did before she became paralyzed in 1997.

CUMBERLAND – When Donna Furlong became paralyzed two decades ago, she never imagined she’d ride a bicycle again. She once enjoyed cruising along the East Bay Bike Path with her husband, Bob, coasting through Bristol with their two small children strapped onto the backs of their bicycles.

This summer, Furlong experienced the freedom and independence of cycling for the first time since 1997, the year she was paralyzed after she experienced a loss of oxygen to her spine during surgery.

On June 5, Furlong, of Rehoboth, Mass., participated in an accessible cycling event hosted by the Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Blackstone River Bikeway Ambassadors program and Northampton, Mass.-based nonprofit All Out Adventures.

“It was freeing,” Furlong said of getting back on a bicycle. “I felt very independent to the point where, after the ride, I said, I have to look into this.”

Unfortunately, “anything having to do with accessibility or medical issues is expensive,” Furlong said, including the bicycle she would require, a handcycle with an adjustable seat that requires the user to peddle with their hands.

Soon after, Blackstone Heritage Corridor volunteer coordinator Suzanne Buchanan was catching up with Blackstone Valley Paddle Club volunteer Bob Webster, who mentioned that his wife, Cheryl, had an accessible handcycle that she did not use much anymore.

“He asked me about it and since it had been sitting in our basement for a few years with me thinking I’d ride it again someday, I said I’d be happy to have her ride it for the rest of the season,” said Cheryl Webster, a 28-year resident of Cumberland.

Webster acquired the bike after a similar trial on the East Bay Bike Path about 15 years ago, with help from a grant funded by BIKE-ON.

“I loved being able to be outdoors, moving under my own power and not in my wheelchair,” Webster said.

Webster was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 22, requiring a wheelchair by age 25.

“I thought I would not have a life,” Webster said. “I came to the conclusion that the only way to have a life was to give something to others. I just didn’t know what that would be, because it seemed like I had nothing.”

She had a bachelor’s degree, and later discovered speech language pathology when she went through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. From there, she earned a master’s degree in that field and has worked as a speech language pathologist since, most recently at McCourt Middle School.

“I firmly believe my chosen career picked me up and carried me through my life,” said Webster. “As for loaning the bike to Donna … it was just something I could do for someone else. That’s what we’re here for.”

“It worked out perfectly,” Furlong said. The handcycle was the exact model of accessible bicycle that she needed. While Webster and Furlong were strangers a few months ago, the women said their friendship is just getting started.

“We met when she came to try out the handcycle and found we had a lot in common, although she is much younger than me,” Webster said. “We found out we had a lot of the same issues with accessibility.”

She said she hopes the bike opens up other opportunities for Furlong, as it did for her. After her first ride on the East Bay Bike Path, Webster cycled all of the local routes, through the neighborhood, on to Lincoln and Bristol, and east to the Cape Cod Canal and Cape Cod National Seashore. She eventually acquired a ramp van that opened up the possibility of riding something motorized. Today, she zips around in an electric tricycle that she can take on bike paths and on the beach, and an electric scooter for daily use.

“Both of these have helped me negotiate getting older with a disability, none of which would have been possible without my initial introduction to handcycling,” she said. “I really hope it opens up new possibilities for Donna. Suzanne is always saying: imagine the possibilities. I can’t wait to talk to Donna again to hear about her escapades.”

This month, thanks to Webster’s generosity, Furlong was back on the trails with her family, though her children are now old enough to ride on their own. They took their inaugural ride at Slater Park in Pawtucket, and hope to try a trail in the Cumberland area soon.

“I’m just grateful that Sue was able to set this up through a simple conversation,” Furlong said. “Financially, I could never afford one of my own, but because of her and Cheryl and her husband, I’m able to get out and I really appreciate it.”

“I was happy to have someone else who needed it have an opportunity to do what I had done,” Webster said. “It is an amazing thing to move in that way when you haven’t been able to for many years. It felt good to give someone that experience as it had been given to me.”

Donna and Bob Furlong stop for a photo at Slater Park this month – one of the first times Donna has been cycling since she became paralyzed in 1997. Cumberland resident Cheryl Webster has loaned Furlong the handcycle bike.