Despite MS, marathoner keeps rolling along
There are moments when you could throw in the towel. Helene Hines has confronted them several times.
And she kept going.
The most recent was in early October, when she was training for the New York City Marathon. Hines was in the crosswalk at 86th Street, heading to Central Park on the recumbent handcycle she uses to race, when an ambulance slammed into her front wheel. "I saw it coming," she recalls, "and I said, 'Oh, my God.' "
Before she was rescued, her legs, which straddle the front wheel of the three-wheeled handcycle, were under the ambulance. "How my feet weren't mangled, I don't know," says Hines, who divides her time between apartments in Garden City and Manhattan. Her legs were bruised and discolored, but she declined a trip to the hospital and instead went home, determined to start training again as soon as she healed.
Like so many disabled athletes who keep moving forward despite physical setbacks, rebounding has been a hallmark of her life. Hines, 65, once a high school physical education teacher, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 30 and at one point became paralyzed. Doctors told her she would never walk again, she says.
Instead, she took up running.
Now a world-class athlete, Hines ran 27 marathons from 1988 to 1999 in New York City, Boston, New Jersey and major competitions overseas as a member of Achilles International (achillesinternational .org), a New York-based nonprofit track club that works with athletes with disabilities. She won almost consistently in her category, with her best time at 4 hours and 15 minutes for 26.2 miles. "That's pretty good for somebody who's not supposed to even walk," she says.
When dizziness and excruciating pain forced her to give up running, she began competing with a handcycle, a low-riding racer propelled by hand cranks. And since 2000, she has won 24 marathons in her division.
Dick Traum, president of Achilles International, says: "Helene has always been a really great athlete. She's been through a lot of significant disabilities, but that doesn't slow her down. She's a pioneer in the field of sports for the disabled. She's a leader."
In 2003, Hines was the first disabled person inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack. The following year, the East Meadow Jewish Center gave her its Woman of Valor award "for her courage and determination and commitment to excellence in the face of adversity."
Hines credits her husband, George, 66, chief of vascular surgery at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, with motivating her to walk by strolling with her on the boardwalk in Long Beach. With his encouragement, she advanced to running. "When George started me running, he just didn't know how crazy I'd become about running, but he's the one who got me up when I was sick," Hines says. "He set my goals. He pushed me forward. Without him, I wouldn't be who I am at all." Competing in races, she says, makes her feel in control of the disease and not the other way around.
George Hines, who runs for relaxation, says of his wife: "She's very focused. She knows what she wants to do and doesn't make any excuses. I think the ways she's adapted to this [multiple sclerosis] is what kept her going all these years -- just the desire to do all these crazy things she does [including a 56-mile marathon in South Africa in 1994], and she's usually cheerful about it. It's almost like getting sick got her into a life she wouldn't have had, had she not gotten sick."
She's had practice facing challenges. Hines lost a kidney to cancer and has hypertension, arthritis, asthma and unpredictable symptoms of multiple sclerosis, such as dizzy spells, nausea, shooting back pains and balance problems. She also has a titanium shoulder replacement. When symptoms attack, she pushes herself to move through the pain. To help fight muscle fatigue, she wears compression shirts and pants. For stability and to help her walk, she wears back and leg braces.
Hines, a grandmother of two, is fortunate to have a helper who cleans her apartments, and she and her husband eat out so she doesn't have to cook. The couple has been married for 43 years. Their son Brian, 42, is a uro-
gynecologist who lives in Westchester; daughter Jennifer, 40, is an opera singer and Manhattan resident.
In 2001, Hines was part of a six-member team that represented the United States in the World Hand-Cycling Championships in Germany. She placed third overall, and many of the contestants were half her age. Hoping to inspire others, she and Elihu Blotnick wrote a 108-page memoir, "Third in the World" (Firefall Editions), published in December 2011.
There were other races when she could have given up, but didn't; running with a fractured ankle in the 1992 New York City Marathon; or when her handcycle overturned and she landed on her face during the 1999 New Jersey Marathon. "Just patch me up and let's go," she recalls telling the paramedics. She finished the race before heading to a plastic surgeon.
Despite an asthma attack during a Boston Marathon, she crossed the finish line, though "wheezing and gasping for breath," according to a 2004 account by Barbara Vitale, who wrote a 96-page biography of her friend: "An Amazing Woman! The Helene Hines Story. Living with MS and Enjoying Life."
Less than a month after last year's ambulance crash, Hines was back in training for the New York City Marathon. The race was canceled because of superstorm Sandy, so her next goal is the Boston Marathon in April. In the 2012 race there, she placed first in the women's handcycle division, with a time of 1 hour, 47 minutes, 44 seconds.
To train, she rides her handcycle four days a week in Central Park, striving for 24 miles each day. Three days a week, she swims near her Garden City home, where she displays her trophies and awards. She also teaches swimming to people with MS at the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside.
Anastasia Papas, 49, of Levittown, who was diagnosed with MS 22 years ago, has been a member of Hines' hourlong swim class for 10 years. She calls Hines a role model and says: "She doesn't let us say we can't do anything. She always tells us, 'Push yourself hard to do the best.' She's proved it herself with all the marathons she's done. . . . We're all grateful to her."
Hines explains: "It wasn't until I had a disability that I learned the true meaning of life: never to say anything is impossible. When I learned it for myself, I wanted to help other people."
She credits her late service dog, Kyler, a black Golden Retriever-Labrador mix she had for nearly 11 years, with helping to boost her independence. "Before Kyler, I was scared to go anywhere," Hines says. "He opened the refrigerator, got me the phone, helped me up from the bed, helped me balance." Kyler's body was cremated, and she wears a pendant that holds some of the ashes. Her new service dog is Charlie, a black Lab.
Knowing how important service dogs are to people with disabilities, Hines advocates for them. She has sued several food establishments that refused to admit her with her dog and donates monies won from lawsuits, races and book royalties to Canine Companions for Independence (cci.org), which trains service dogs.
Hines knows she can't predict how long she'll continue to compete. "The future is always a question, especially mine," she reasons, "but I look forward to the races. When my hands eventually say, 'You can't do it anymore,' then I'll still teach and coach. I'll help somewhere. I think you have to keep reaching, no matter what kind of disease, what kind of person you are."
For now, she's content to be training for the next marathon. "How many people get the chance to live out their dreams and, instead of being 65, to feel 16?" Hines says. "I know I'm older, but I really enjoy the challenge. I'll fight forward, one way or another, till I can't. . . . I love life," she says. "What makes me really happy is being an athlete. God let me continue."