James T. Davis, Jr., made a promise to his father in one of their final conversations.
“I told him I was going to do the 12 miles,” he says, “and I’ve never broken a promise to my father in my adult life, so I had to do the 12 miles.”
The 12 miles was a portion of the Tour de Cure fundraiser that Davis—who lost his right leg below the knee to diabetes—planned to ride on a specially designed bicycle.
The problem confronting Davis as he mounted his bike at the starting line in Ambler, Pa., was that he hadn't been able to clear the time to train for the ride. He had been too consumed with taking care of his father, who was seriously ill with complications from back surgery.
Fortunately, the 51-year-old Mount Airy resident was part of a team from MossRehab that day in early June. The 12-mile team, which included four MossRehab physical therapists, recognized his predicament and rallied to see if they could help him through the race.
"It was a pretty hilly course," says David Nutt, PT, DPT, who served as Davis' physical therapist when he was an inpatient at MossRehab and was a member of the team that day. "Jim was pushing himself and-he did not ask for help-but we realized that it was going to be slow going, and we decided that we were going to go all together. We all kind of hovered around Jim. He was going to do it, and we weren't going to leave him behind."
That wasn’t the first time MossRehab therapists had rallied to help Davis as he fought to cross a finish line.
An earlier challenge
In 2013, Davis lost his leg to a MRSA infection at the same time that a kidney transplanted from his mother 15 years earlier began to fail-pushing him into dialysis. Much of this had been brought on by complications from Type 2 diabetes, which Davis acknowledges he had done little to control since being diagnosed decades earlier.
After a rough few years battling medical issues, Davis found himself as an inpatient at MossRehab in April 2015, hoping to work his way out of a wheelchair.
He entered MossRehab in a weakened state.
"Initially, just getting to the side of the bed was very difficult, and getting in and out of the wheelchair was difficult," he recalls. "It was difficult basically to do everything but breathe. I was a really sick person at that point."
"When he first came in, he was just learning to stand," Nutt says. "He was very weak. He needed more than one person to help him even stand up and get out of his wheelchair."
Nutt says Davis became a highly motivated patient as he saw the progress, much of it from the Alter G anti-gravity treadmill.
"I think he started to become very hopeful," he says. "He got excited that he had a chance at a different kind of life than sitting in the wheelchair. He became very determined. He was hard on himself when he didn't achieve what he wanted to. He would push himself a lot, and he would get excited when he would achieve something."
Davis paints a similar picture.
"I had uncontrolled diabetes, because I didn't exercise before this," he says. "But … throughout my life when my back was put up against the wall, that's when I got motivated. My back was put up against the wall big-time with this. I got real motivated, and I'm seeing results, so I'm staying motivated."
Davis made substantial progress.
"By the time he left six weeks later, he was walking up to 50 feet with close supervision and he was using a rolling walker," Nutt says. "That opened the opportunity for accelerated progress once he was turned over to outpatient visits and could also work on therapy at home."
Continuing to work
Davis spent parts of two years receiving intense physical and occupational therapy from MossRehab, sometimes going three days a week alternated with days at dialysis. During that time, he progressed from a wheelchair, to a walker, to crutches to a single crutch to being able to climb stairs.
Earlier this year, his physical therapist, Alba Seda-Morales, PT, DPT, began putting a team together for the annual Cure de Tour benefiting the American Diabetes Association. Davis showed an interest. Seda-Morales had previously helped him try a bicycle that he could pedal with his hands.
"I went around the first floor there, and had visions of when I was a kid, you know, riding all over the city the way I used to do, so I really enjoyed myself, and I guess she saw that in me," he says. "Initially, we were going to use that arm bike for me to do three miles, and I jumped at the chance. After that, I kind of let my ego get into it, I'll admit that. I thought, 'Wow, what if I could get back on a real bike.'"
Davis went to a bike shop where he purchased a two-wheeler with stabilizers on either side. He was discharged into a maintenance program in April 2017 and was going to use some of that time to train. Then his father became sick, and he shifted his focus to helping him.
"One of the last conversations I had with my Dad I told him, 'When you get out of here, you've got to make sure that you come to the Cure de Tour and see me ride,'" he says. That never happened. James T. Davis, Sr., passed away a few days before the race at age 79.
‘Never left my side’
The MossRehab team surrounded Davis the whole 12 miles. When he hit hills that were too tough, the therapists took turns dropping their bikes and running back to push him up.
"They never left my side," he remembers. "I would not have finished this without their help. They never ever let me get down emotionally either, they kept pushing me emotionally and physically through that race. Those guys are awesome. I love every one of them."
It all hit him when he crossed the finish line.
"I was relieved, I was proud of myself, I felt like my father had pushed me. It was just a whole big jumble of emotions," he says. "We did some good, too. I know I raised over $1,000, so I know I helped somebody, and that's the reason I did that race. I just wanted to prove that if I could do it, maybe somebody could eat a little better or see a doctor or something, because diabetes is a slow killer."
Davis was one of four MossRehab patients with amputations to join the race that day.
A new promise
As for his future on a bicycle, Davis has more cautious plans.
“I had to promise Alba that I would never ever do another bike race without training beforehand, so I’ll keep that promise,” he says, “but I do plan on riding that bike recreationally.”
And he plans on working on controlling his diabetes and continuing to work with his friends at MossRehab.
"I don't think I'd be alive without them," he says. "Not only did they repair my physical pain, they also got my mind right and my spirit stronger. I don't think that's part of the program, I think that's just the people that are there. Every single therapist that I have encountered has just encouraged me to be positive, and they always told me that I could do anything that I chose to do. The whole staff there is just, they're amazing, they're amazing."
Any lessons for others facing similar adversity?
"Anything is possible with prayer, patience, and persistence, and I plan on living my life with that mantra," Davis says. "If I can get through all the things that I've been through, using those tools, anybody can do the same."
Learn more about MossRehab's amputation services