Twelve years ago, Two Harbors resident Jim Robb was laying in a hospital bed after a severe epileptic seizure that had put him in an induced coma in an intensive care unit, the possibility of an overnight bicycle trip seemed remote, at best.
On June 3, however, Robb will not only start an overnight bike trip, but a 40 day adventure that will take him from Two Harbors to Itasca State Park and then down the Mississippi River Trail all the way to where the longest river in the U.S. empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I thought excellent, I can leave right from Burlington Bay,” Robb said. “I can put my bike tires in the water at Burlington Bay and the next time they hit the water will be the Gulf of Mexico.”
The 2,000 mile journey marks a remarkable turnaround for Robb who for many years suffered from powerful seizures and chronic pain that eventually led to dependency on painkillers and alcoholism.
Robb’s troubles began in 2001 when he was rearended by a drunk driver twice in the span of eight months, fracturing his neck in both accidents and causing him severe pain and seizures, which couldn’t be controlled with medication. The seizures also prevented him from one of his passions that he developed as a boy, long distance bike riding. He was unable to anticipate when one of his seizures might strike and it kept him homebound most of the time.
After the accidents, Robb’s doctors prescribed oxycodone for the pain and nerve damage and he became dependent on the painkiller. It took him seven years to kick the addiction with the help of doctors and physical therapy to manage the pain he was experiencing. Robb continued to drink off and on until last year, when he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly.
“He was always so active, he had his own construction business and all of a sudden he couldn’t do anything,” Robb’s sister Debbie Anderson said. “It’s kind of like almost a depression when they lose their self-esteem, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Last year, however, Robb had a vagus nerve stimulation device implanted in his chest. The VNS device is sometimes described as a “pacemaker for the brain,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation. It sends regular, mild electrical pulses to the brain through the vagus nerve, which controls functions of the body not under voluntary control, and prevents seizures from happening. A neurologist programs the strength and timing of the pulses according to each patient’s needs. One of the side effects, however, is the wire used to carry the impulses passes very close to the larynx, or voice box, and will cause Robb’s voice to become hoarse and quiet for several seconds about every five minutes.
“I have to anticipate when that is coming on so I can hyperventilate before it happens,” Robb said. “It’s been quite a challenge.”
Since Robb received the implant, he says he hasn’t had any seizure activity and it’s given him the freedom to start taking longer bike trips again. He has done several four day journeys up the North Shore and over to Bayfield, Wis., as part of his training. He has also lost about 30 pounds, which cutting out alcohol has helped out with as well.
“When you are long distance bike riding a lot of it is all mental,” Robb said. “It gives me a lot of time to think, to go over everything of the day when I’m riding. It helps me focus. When your body is under a lot of stress it will slow your mind down to think.”
Anderson agrees with her brother about the focus helping him in his rehabilitation from his accidents and his recovery from chemical dependency.
“He has always been an outside person,” Anderson said, “He has always been athletic so to see him focus on his bicycling, something he’s done as a kid, to see him get into shape like he is now it is just a joy to see.”
Anderson said when her brother was a boy he was “busy, busy, busy,” and at just 13 years old, he told their mother he was going out for a bike ride and, without telling her, rode all the way from his boyhood home in Frederick, Wis., 120 miles to Two Harbors and knocked on his sister’s door.
Robb has planned out his trip to New Orleans a little more than that first trip to Two Harbors and plans to follow Highway 61 to Hinckley and then west over to Itasca State Park. Then he will follow the Mississippi River Trail through 10 states, camping as much as possible, but maybe staying in hotels once he reaches the more southern states and the intense heat and humidity of the region, which is a concern.
“Because of all of these seizures he still has to be really responsible with his health, especially when he gets to the South,” Anderson said. “He has to be very careful about his sodium levels, that he stays hydrated and keeps the numbers of his doctors prominently on his bike. He has to stay very responsible to himself all of the time.”
Robb also did a presentation to the classes at Silver Creek Learning Center. Robb’s niece, Erin Carlson, owns and operates the preschool and the students all signed a set of flags representing the 10 states he will travel through during his journey. Robb said he plans to get some of the people he meets to sign the flags and then the students will hang the flags in their classroom when he returns.
“When you’re going 15 mph, you get to stop and meet people,” he said. Robb added that he wants to “get a taste of America that you can’t get by flying or driving a car.”
After nearly 15 years of struggles with pain, seizures and substance abuse, he said he finally feels like he is as strong as he was before the accidents and has control over his life again. He regularly volunteers at the Bud House, a board and lodge on First Avenue in Two Harbors, and works doing maintenance with Long Ventures Apartments in Lake County.
Anderson and Carlson plan to fly to New Orleans to meet Robb when he arrives. His sister is extraordinarily proud of how far he has come and his dedication to his recovery and rehabilitation.
“I just think it’s a good story for someone who has had addiction problems to see how you can come out on the other side,” Anderson said. “How if you really put your mind to something and focus on something, it can be an inspiration to someone who has had health or addiction problems, that you can do it.”