Riding for young cancer patients

Journey spanned 4 months, 3,900 miles, 4 time zones

July 19, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The McQuins of Mount Airy just logged 3,904 miles on their bikes, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, through 12 states, two deserts and four time zones.

The journey, dubbed "One Voice Across America: A Ride to Fight Childhood Cancer," was inspired by 19-year-old Bobby McQuin's recovery from leukemia. Their goal was to raise money for cancer research and increase awareness of a disease that claims more victims younger than age 15 than any other.

It took the cyclists four months to climb seven mountain ranges, cross countless rivers and visit more than 350 children hospitalized with cancer.

When the riders dipped their bikes in the surf at Virginia Beach, Va., two weeks ago, they could hardly believe that the journey was over.

"We made it; what a great feeling," 18-year-old Sean McQuin wrote in one of the final entries to a journal posted on the Internet. "We finished something we started what seems like a long time ago and weren't sure we could really do."

At home, he said, "It was a grueling trip, paired with the emotional aspects of meeting so many sick kids. But worth it."

Bob and Beth McQuin, their developmentally disabled foster daughter and seven other children ages 23 months to 19, spent months preparing for the trip. They wanted to celebrate Bobby's recovery and send a message of hope to hundreds of children battling cancer.

Beth McQuin credits Sean with "the boundless energy and enthusiasm" to keep the family on track. He maintained the bikes, studied the maps and counted the miles, making sure the riders racked up 300 miles a week. When Bobby felt too tired to get back on his bike, Sean urged him on.

"Sean can goad me into just about anything," Bobby said at the outset of the trip.

Bobby was age 8 when his acute lymphoblastic leukemia was diagnosed. Five years of grueling treatments and a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother Craig, then 4, followed. The family stayed by his side throughout the course of treatment; then joined him when he decided on what cyclists call the ultimate ride.

While biking cross-country, Bobby did some goading of his own, stopping at 17 children's hospitals to offer encouragement to children with cancer.

"I would tell them my background and what I was doing now with the bike trip," he said. "I would tell them they can fight this and they can beat it."

Painful memories

Visiting hospitals triggered painful memories for Bobby.

"There are so many emotions when you draw yourself back into that world," he said. "But, it would be totally selfish not to go, not to let them see me. I saw kids going through much worse than what I'd gone through. We were doing so much good. You could tell from people's faces."

The McQuins have kept in touch by e-mail with many of the patients they met on the tour and their families.

"A doctor is an efficient expert, but not the same as a parent who has been through what you are going through," said Beth McQuin. "I could say, `Here is my child and he is well now.' It helps them get through it."

The three oldest McQuin children kept a journal that details the many kindnesses shown the family along the way. Strangers offered meals, rooms, showers, laundry facilities and hair cuts. One woman sent them coupons for Dairy Queen after their favorite place to stop had to be eliminated from a tight budget. Truck drivers handed the riders $5 bills along the road. Marriott Hotels, where Bob McQuin works as a telecommunications analyst, gave them free lodging in every town with a Marriott.

The most useful gift of all came from a Baltimore businessman who lent them his $100,000 recreational vehicle. Jeff Carter had read about their planned trip in The Sun and knew that his 37-foot Winnebago could smooth the way. He had it serviced, painted with the One Voice Across America logo and handed it over to the McQuins with a full tank of gas.

"They were planning to make this trip in a 15-seat passenger van that probably would have broken down outside the Harbor Tunnel," said Carter, president of J.A.C. Communications, who added that he didn't know whether generosity or craziness prompted the donation.

"They needed it more than I did," said Carter. "I have two healthy kids. I didn't have time to do what they did. This was my donation."

The McQuins put 9,000 miles on the vehicle, driven most often by Beth McQuin while Bob McQuin cycled with Bobby, Sean and Megan. The younger children often bicycled with their siblings. The family acknowledged that the van was a little worse for the wear when they returned it last week.

"The condition didn't matter," said Carter. "If this trip saves one kid's life or even made one sick child smile, it was all worth it."

Honorary citizens

Along the way, the McQuins met other cross-country cyclists, including a 10-year cancer survivor and two riders who didn't know how to change a tire or adjust a chain. The McQuins are now honorary citizens of several towns, with certificates and keys to prove it.

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