A true story, as told to M. C. Millman
Riding as the youngest girl in the group for the annual 72-mile Tour De Simcha bike-a-thon might have felt daunting to any other girl, but not 17-year-old Leora Landsberg*. This was her second time riding into Camp Simcha with the Tour De Simcha fundraiser, along with fourteen other Monsey women who had joined the initiative. This time though, she was representing a friend in her Monsey high school, a girl a year younger than her who had undergone surgery on her left ankle a few months before the summer biking event and was thus wheelchair-bound while she recovered.
Leora has been a champion of Chai Lifeline since second grade, when she decided to grow her hair and donate 14 inches of it to Chai Lifeline. “I got back a certificate thanking me for my donation, and from then on I felt this kesher to the organization. I loved them. I did every swim-a-thon and run-a-thon for every event they held for kids in school and camp.”
When Leora was in 11th grade she heard about the women’s Tour De Simcha bike-a-thon and decided to join. “I love exercise, and my father is a big outdoorsman and biker, so I decided to join. I trained and trained. In the winter before the bike-a-thon I went to my local gym and did a spin class, and if there was no snow on the route I would go bike riding with my father up into the mountains in Harriman right outside of Monsey.”
Every biker has to raise a minimum of $2,500 in order to participate. “That, for me, was the hardest thing,” said Leora. “I had never done anything like that before.” But if the first year was hard, the second year was even harder. “It was hard to go back to the same people the next year and ask for money for the exact same cause I had done before.” But she did it, and earned her place in the bike-a-thon.
The week before her second ride in the Tour De Simcha, Leora wasn’t sure she was going to be able to participate after all. “I’ve run a camp for five years now, and after one week of camp I realized I had some critical camp business to work out. Camp was my first priority, so I wasn’t sure I would even be able to make it.”
Somehow, though, she managed to work through the kinks, and whereas most riders spend the night in a hotel near the starting line, Leora’s mother drove her up the morning of the race in order to get her there for the 6:30 a.m. departure.
“I was supposed to have SPD bike shoes delivered before the bike-a-thon,” Leora said. “I never had a pair before, but people had convinced me that it would be easier for biking.” The shoes snap onto the bike’s pedal so the biker’s feet won’t slip off. “I called Amazon and they had no idea what happened to the shoes I had ordered to arrive in plenty of time before the ride. They saw the order, but the delivery hadn’t made it.”
It wasn’t the first thing that seemed to go wrong that morning.
That morning, in the car on the way to the ride, when Leora checked her iPod, she noticed with dismay that the screen was telling her that her iPod had reset. Music has always been a critical component of Leora’s life. Way back when, Leora had formed her own choir consisting of younger girls. (She was the second-grade choir leader of an eager group of first graders.) She made all the arrangements herself for her choir’s performance, calling up Monsey’s Fountain View to schedule a time for her choir to come sing, and making costumes for each of her girls with the $2.50 she collected from each one before their debut. And that was just the beginning of a musical career that included years of voice training and singing, making Leora feel that music was as important to her life as breathing.
“It’s not possible for an iPod to reset on its own,” Leora explains. “There are a number of steps to go through, and you have to enter your password to do a reset. I had not done any of those things. I was sleeping, and my iPod was charging between the wall and my bed. No one could have gotten to it.” With a mounting wave of panic, Leora realized that her entire 2,000-song playlist of painstakingly collected songs was gone. It would take forever (to her way of thinking) to recreate that collection. Not only that, but now she was going to have to make the 72-mile ride virtually alone.
Forty miles of countryside with the cows, the grass, the stunning scenery across hills and up and down mountains with only her own thoughts for company, and Leora slowly came to grips with the loss of her music, and found that, surprisingly, she was actually enjoying being alone with her own thoughts.
“It was then that I noticed an 18-wheel truck behind me,” Leora says. A biker is considered a vehicle. He must stay on the road and is not even allowed to go onto the sidewalk. As such, other vehicles need to respect a biker in the same way they would any other vehicle on the road. “It was a very narrow road,” Leora remembers, “and there was lots of traffic coming from the other direction. There was nothing I could do but keep pedaling with that truck sticking right behind me for miles. The curb on the side was a good 6 inches high. I actually have never seen such high curbs, so I couldn’t veer onto the side there, and there was no shoulder. I remember hearing the sudden roar of the engine, and then the truck was passing me. I could see that my wheel was practically touching his. We were that close. Strangely enough, I wasn’t scared. I just knew there was nothing I could do, and then. . .I don’t remember anything.
The next thing Leora knew was she was lying in the middle of the street with cars parked all around, people were screaming and her foot was under her. Those who have tried to reconstruct what happened imagine that Leora’s bike’s wheel probably went under the truck and her foot was crushed. She went flying off her bike and got banged again by the back of the truck, because somehow she ended up in the middle of the street. Had Leora’s missing Amazon order of those SPD shoes come, locking her onto her bike’s pedals, Leora would not have gone flying off her bike and, well, one look at her totaled bike tells how this story would have had a very different ending.
“I have a high tolerance for pain,” Leora says, “but with the various bones poking out and the torn tissue, ripped nerves and damaged Achilles tendon, I was in a lot more pain than I could handle. ‘It’s OK to cry,’ my EMT told me. ‘You just got hit by a truck.’”
As hashgacha would have it, at the time of the accident, Rabbi Simcha Scholar, executive vice president of Chai Lifeline, and his wife were driving through Port Jervis and arrived on the scene immediately after Leora’s accident happened. Rabbi Scholar’s wife accompanied Leora in the ambulance so she was not alone, and the rest of the bikers were able to finish their ride into camp.
Despite her pain, Leora had to call her parents. Realizing her father, who had been hit by a car while bike riding himself, would be the calmer of the two, she managed to make the call.
“I’m OK, but I was hit by a truck.”
Her father’s calm response was everything she needed to hear. “OK, I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
Her mother wasn’t quite so calm. She had nearly made it back to Monsey after having driven to meet Leora by several of the regular 13-mile rest and refuel stops set up along the way. She turned right back around and headed for the hospital when her husband gave her the news.
Two doses of morphine later, with the bones of her foot reset and bandaged, Leora was told that she would have to stay in the hospital. She needed to wait for the swelling to go down, which would take a week, and only then could she have surgery.
“I’m not staying here for a week just to take medicine. I can do that at home,” Leora said. “Either you release me, or I’m taking off this IV and leaving myself.”
She got her way, but once in the car, despite her excruciating pain, Leora insisted not on going home, but rather to Camp Simcha.
“I need to finish what I started,” she told her mother emphatically, which is how she ended up a short while later being pushed in a wheelchair into Camp Simcha’s gym to be part of the huge post-ride celebration party that goes over and above in making every rider realize, that to the children at Camp Simcha, they are each a true hero.
“There’s a girl who started out this morning on one set of wheels,” the Camp Simcha representative announced over the microphone into the crowded gym that was in the midst of celebrating the accomplishments of the day’s bikers, “and she’s coming in on a different set of wheels that our campers know only too well!”
To the accompaniment of loud cheers, blasting music and dancing girls, an astonished Leora was pushed through the Camp Simcha tunnel of love made up of linked arms arched overhead and created just for her grand entrance. All the bikers receive medals for their valiant efforts on the part of the camp. Leora’s medal was presented to her by none other than the friend in whose name she had been doing the bike-a-thon for.
It was a night to remember for everyone. Even though she ended up in Good Samaritan Hospital that night having her leg reset for the second time, Leora knew it had been worth it to visit Camp Simcha even with a leg broken in three places. Good Samaritan also told her, before releasing her to wait out her time at home, that she would have to wait a week before surgery.
The next day, though, much to her surprise, Leora was back in the hospital being prepped for surgery. It was not just any surgery, but the exact same surgery on the exact same ankle the friend she had represented in the ride had undergone a few short months earlier. The doctor her parents contacted was not willing to wait a week for the swelling to go down. He was afraid if they waited Leora might never walk again. Eight screws and one plate later to repair her ankle, Leora was back home for the long, hard recovery.
“I couldn’t do anything for myself,” Leora said. “Getting up to do or get things, or just to move, was so painful. I was never someone who could sit still, and now I had no other choice. Even once I could move around a little, I couldn’t do anything because of the crutches. If you need a drink of water, you can’t carry the glass, and you can’t fill it with water. I had to rely on people for everything, and I hated it. I’m just not that kind of person.”
Five weeks after Leora’s ankle surgery, when it finally looked like Leora was on the mend, she was in so much pain again that she couldn’t even stand on her crutches. Her mother insisted they go back to the hospital. Leora wanted nothing to do with it.
“When I was young, I couldn’t stand up from pain once also,” her mother told her. “And I had to get my appendix out.”
Leora did not believe in history repeating itself, but her mother was adamant.
When the CAT scan showed that Leora did indeed have an inflamed appendix, Leora was visibly upset. “I can’t go through surgery again!” she said, but she had little choice.
After the surgery, Leora was beside herself when she came to, and was focused enough to notice where the post-surgery ice pack was positioned under her hospital gown. “They took out the wrong thing,” she whispered, lifting the hospital gown to show her appalled mother the ice pack on the left side, even though everyone knows the appendix is on the right side.
To be continued in our next issue.
*Not her actual name