Quadriplegic Ontario man hand-cycling across Canada to promote activity after injury

“I want to dip my tires in both oceans.”

Kevin Mills leaves Cape Spear, N.L., on May 24 after the start of his cross-Canada trip in a wheelchair bicycle. GREG LOCKE, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Follow the journey • Full route mapsWhere is Kevin Mills now?

ROY MACGREGOR, Special to The Globe and Mail May 25, 2023 Updated May 27, 2023

Kevin Mills completed the first “dip” on Wednesday in St. John’s. The event marked the Newmarket, Ont., man’s 43rd birthday. Before this year is out, Mr. Mills plans to wet his wheelchair tires in Victoria, thereby becoming the first quadriplegic to cross Canada by pedalling with his arms and shoulders, the only parts of his body in which he has full function.

Not bad for someone who was once told by a Toronto surgeon he’d be lucky if one day he might be able to “shrug his shoulders.”

Mr. Mills and his team anticipate the trip to Victoria will take four months or longer. FRED LUM, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Mr. Mills was a fine athlete as a youth growing up in the small Southern Ontario city of Guelph, heavily into biking, scuba diving, rock climbing and track. He competed nationally in the 800-metre and 1,500-metre events, not quite reaching the podium but coming in a respectable fifth among the best high-school runners in the country.

He attended Humber College in the Toronto area and graduated as an advance care paramedic. He dreamed of one day joining the city police tactical team.

On a rock-climbing expedition with friends, he met Heather, a paramedic. Soon they were married and deeply into physical fitness. They built a cabin in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, one of North America’s premier areas for rock climbing.

In 2008, their son, Evan, was born.

A year later, while the family was vacationing in Cuba, Mr. Mills was swimming when he was suddenly picked up by a rogue wave and pounded onto the ocean floor. The impact left him paralyzed with a C4 level spinal injury.

Heather Cairns-Mills, right, and trainer Nicole Davenport help Mr. Mills at the journey’s starting point at Cape Spear. GREG LOCKE, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Rushed to Havana, where he received primary care, he was later transported to Toronto, where he underwent more medical procedures and therapy at the trauma unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

After months of intense therapy at the Lyndhurst Centre, which specializes in spinal cord rehabilitation, he learned to steer a motorized wheelchair with slight head movements. Nothing more was to be expected, he was told. He refused to accept this. “I just wanted to be as active as possible in the ways that I could,” he says.

The couple went to a clinic in Florida, where Mr. Mills underwent activity-based therapy, which so encouraged them that, in 2011, Ms. Cairns-Mills opened Walk It Off Spinal Cord Recovery and Wellness Centre in their hometown north of Toronto.

Mr. Mills’s progress under the new therapy was remarkable. He gradually regained shoulder movement and control over his arms.

“I have big biceps and full shoulder movement,” he brags. Unfortunately, hand movement and control did not return.

How, then, does he “bike” across a country as vast as Canada? He has great strength in both shoulders and arms and is able to pull things. This allows him to crank the wheels of the cycle that attaches to the front of his wheelchair.

He has Quad Grips specifically designed for someone with little or no control of their hands. The grips also give him stability, and he can then use his strong cranking power to move the contrived bicycle forward.

He will supply most of the power and must pedal continuously, but there is a power-assisted system – much like today’s popular ebikes – that will help, particularly on steep inclines.

Grips on Mr. Mills’s bike allow him to crank the wheels even without hand control. A power-assisted system allows for extra help going uphill. FRED LUM, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ms. Davenport trains with Mr. Mills the week before he sets off. She was the one who first gave him the idea of the cross-Canada journey. FRED LUM, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Kevin’s personal trainer, Nikki Davenport, 31, works at Walk It Off as a kinesiologist. They began biking together, increasing their distance and time weekly. After five years of biking, the two friends could claim to have done six marathons and two dozen half marathons.

It was Ms. Davenport who came up with the wild idea of travelling across Canada.

“Kevin has gotten stronger,” she says. “He’s gotten more movement. He’s gotten more independent – even to the point where he can keep up with me.” She raised the possibility on a ride and, as she says, “Kevin was pretty stoked.”

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” says Mr. Mills, “but didn’t think was logistically possible.”

He was aware that others had accomplished what seemed impossible. His mother, Betty, had taken him to see Terry Fox as the one-legged runner came through Guelph in the summer of 1980 during his Marathon of Hope. Mr. Mills was only two months old, however, and has no memory of seeing the iconic hero. Mr. Fox, of course, had to stop his inspirational run on Sept. 1, 1980, when his cancer returned. He had run 5,373 kilometres, making it from St. John’s, where he famously dipped his artificial leg into the ocean, to near Thunder Bay.

Mr. Mills does recall seeing Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour in the mid-1980s. Mr. Hansen completed a 26-month, 40,000-kilometre wheelchair ride across Canada, parts of the United States, and on three other continents. Both Mr. Fox and Mr. Hansen raised millions of dollars for cancer and spinal cord research.

Rick Hansen crosses a finish line at a Vancouver shopping centre in 1987, two years after he set off from here on the Man in Motion tour across 34 countries. GREG KINCH, REUTERS In 1980, Terry Fox runs on his Marathon of Hope; in 1983, his parents unveil a statue of their late son in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mr. Mills at Cape Spear, Canada’s easternmost point. Like Mr. Fox, he began his journey in nearby St. John’s. GREG LOCKE, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Mr. Mills hopes his incredible journey will encourage a more accessible world for those who have a mobile disability. In 2017, Statistics Canada said one in 10 Canadians aged 15 and older had a mobility disability. Each year, approximately 4,300 Canadians have spinal cord injuries, many of them left paraplegic to complete paralysis.

Coincidentally, the Trans Canada Trail has been working to make the national trail more accessible to the likes of Mr. Mills, Mr. Hansen and Mr. Fox. TCT has consulted with para-Olympians and is partnering with the advocacy group AccessNow. Trails with full accessibility have been mapped in all 13 provinces and territories with many more to come.

TCT president and chief executive Eleanor McMahon says Mr. Mills’s venture will only help raise awareness, as he plans to use parts of the TCT in his journey.

“Train trails are perfect for me,” he says. “I love the train trails. They’re wide enough and flat.”

Ruts and washouts are a concern. A year ago, Mr. Mills suffered a spasm and ended up in a ditch with his head under water. Fortunately, Ms. Davenport was there to rescue him.

“That was a little traumatic,” he deadpans.

Mr. Mills and Ms. Davenport spent the winter mapping out their route and have established a website at pedalingpossibilities.ca. They calculate it will take four months or more to get from St. John’s to Victoria, biking five-to-six hours each day. They will use lights, clothing and flags to be “as visible as possible.” They will be accompanied by Candace Wyns, Mr. Mills’s personal services worker, who will drive a van and meet up with them at the end of each day. Heather Cairns-Mills will bike part of Newfoundland, return home and then join again in Ontario, as will Evan, now 15.

Mr. Mills has two fears heading into this journey. First, no surprise, is the Rockies, the descent as much as the climb. Next is public speaking, something he will need to do as the journey attracts more and more attention, as happened to both Mr. Fox and Mr. Hansen.

“Public speaking was never my thing,” he laughs, “but I’m going to have to learn how to do it. The whole idea is to promote accessibility, showing people that they, too, can do what I’m doing.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the surname and profession of Heather Cairns-Mills, a paramedic.

Mr. Mills rides through the fishing village of Petty Harbour. Canadians can follow his progress at pedalingpossibilities.ca. GREG LOCKE, THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Source The Globe and Mail

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