Despite a sprain and Lyme disease, Struck finishes Appalachian trek

NEIGHBORS

October 22, 2003|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE DAY after her 28th birthday, Devon Struck took the final step in her 2,170-mile trek along the Appalachian Trail. Despite a sprained ankle and a bout with Lyme disease, the Clary's Forest resident completed the hike Oct. 1. Starting in Georgia on March 15, she finished on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.

The walk was more than a personal journey. Struck's goal was to raise money and awareness for the Brain Injury Association of America. By coincidence, the private walk-a-thon was completed at the start of Brain Injury Awareness Month.

"She raised over $25,000," said Allan Bergman, association president and chief executive officer. "And she certainly raised awareness. The biggest problem, when it comes to getting funding for brain injury research, is the lack of understanding and awareness. It is not a household word, like cancer and heart disease."

Struck's inspiration was her friend Stephanie Gianfagna, 35, who sustained a traumatic brain injury 14 years ago in a car accident. The two women met through Gianfagna's mother, Margaret Pendleton, who with her husband, Kent, owns Produce Galore in Wilde Lake Village Center. Apart from a leave of absence to allow her to take the hike, Struck has worked full time at the store for 3 1/2 years.

Gianfagna cannot walk, talk or eat, and she communicates by subtle changes in her breathing patterns, Pendleton said. She lives at Lorien Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Hickory Ridge, where Pendleton visits her daughter twice a day. Struck, who accompanied Pendleton on some of those visits, was inspired to hike the trail by seeing her friend's struggle. Fellow hikers gave her the nickname Charity.

During the hike, Gianfagna's father, Jim Gianfagna, and his wife, Jean -- owners of a marketing and communications firm in Cleveland -- contacted the news media in towns where Struck planned to pick up supplies and mail. Struck was interviewed by more than 30 newspapers, and radio and TV stations.

Along the way, Struck spoke to school groups about the importance of helmets and seat belts in preventing brain injuries. But getting the word out wasn't the challenge.

"The hardest part of the trip was definitely through southern Maine, the Bigelow Mountain range," Struck said. "It was a lot of difficult boulder climbing."

It also was the rainiest season on record, Struck said, and she encountered snow.

"I hiked through the Smokies in a blizzard that I wasn't prepared for," she said. "The snow was up to my knees. I had plastic bags around my shoes. Hiking the trail is 90 percent mental. It's getting into camp soaking wet, knowing you have to put on wet clothes and a wet pack in the morning and hike in the rain again -- and you still have 4 1/2 months to go. There were definitely times when I was ready to be done, but I knew I would never quit."

Struck said she expected hardships, but she did not anticipate the outpouring of support she received.

"I would get into a town and find a place to stay and resupply, and get to a post office to pick up mail -- all on foot. Then I would stop at a library and check e-mails," Struck said. "There would always be three or four messages from people I never met, saying they were thinking about me and wishing me well. That really made a big difference."

The first thing Struck did after she took the final step amid snow flurries was to call home. Then she called Pendleton in Stephanie Gianfagna's room.

"Devon spoke to Stephanie often from the trail to tell her what she was doing," Pendleton said. "Stephanie grew very fond of the phone and responds when it rings."

Pendleton said she wasn't surprised that Struck finished the trail, in spite of a 15 percent success rate among hikers who attempt it.

"I never doubted she would finish. That's just the kind of person she is," Pendleton said. "I really think she's found her niche. ... When I saw her give a talk at Clarksville Middle School about brain injury, I thought, `This is what she should be doing.' She shines when she speaks in front of people and tells her stories about the hike and brain injury."

Each year, 1.5 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury, Bergman said. More than 50,000 die as a result.

"Much of this is preventable through the use of helmets, seat belts and safe driving," he said. "If one child remembers to wear a helmet because he remembers what Devon said, then that makes all the difference."

For now, Struck is happy to be home. "When I hear that it is going to rain, it's nice to know I'll be inside," she said.

Still, the journey is nothing she would trade.

"The trip was the best experience of my life; I would do it again in a heartbeat," she said.

Struck's goal was to raise $50,000. Donations are being accepted.

To contact Struck, or for information about the walk: www.devonswalk.org. To make a donation, mail a check, made out to Brain Injury Association of America, to Devon's Walk, 5430 Lynx Lane, No. 276, Columbia 21044. Or donate at www.biausa.org.

Struck is back at work and said everyone is welcome to stop in to see her.

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