Moira and James Taubenfeld came all the way from Puerto Rico to spend five days on the Wheels of Love Bike Ride raising money for the Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, a Jerusalem rehabilitation center for physically challenged and disabled children, adolescents and young adults.
Together they raised $7,000 from family and friends and both were visibly emotional as a young patient at ALYN, helped by his father, draped medals around their necks at a ceremony at the end of the ride.
“I had to hold back my tears,” James said. “Nothing can prepare you for the emotion when you get here. I would recommend this ride to anyone.”
The baby giving the Taubenfelds the medal (with some help from his parents) was 10-month-old Yinon Neuman, who was born at 29 weeks with some developmental delays. He was in the hospital for nine months, and has now been a patient at ALYN for the past month and a half.
His father, Yisrael Neuman, has been at the end of the Wheels of Love race for the past four years, but this is his first as a father.
“There is no place like this,” he said. “They do amazing work.”
ALYN is the only pediatric-rehabilitation hospital in Israel. The Wheels of Love ride this year, on its 20th anniversary, raised close to 3 million dollars for the hospital. It treats children with motor, sensory, respiratory, cognitive and other disabilities with the goal to rehabilitate them and get them back to their home or school as quickly as possible.
Barry Levenfeld, a 65-year-old Jerusalem lawyer, was one of the original riders 20 years ago, and has participated every year since. He said every rider commits to raise $3,500 for ALYN, with one rider this year raising a total of $175,000. He raised more than $30,000 this year, he said.
“It’s hard to describe how overwhelming the experience is for the riders,” he said. “If you do something hard together for a good cause, it can become very emotional.”
There are five different bike routes, at various levels of difficulty, and even a hiking route for those who do not cycle. Some of the riders are paired with patients from ALYN, riding tandem for the five days.
One of the riders was Meital Weiss, who did the entire ride on a hand bike because she is a paraplegic. Mati, who has a spinal injury, spent four months at ALYN as a baby, and returns often for follow-up care.
“My husband and I accompany her, and we have to keep up with her,” her mother Atara said. She’s a hard worker and a fast biker and she’s a little devil sometimes. There were some of these uphills on this ride this week that I was panting and she was just going strong. She’s amazing. She’s a real trooper, she’s a real athlete.”
These kinds of statements are music to the ears of ALYN’s director, Dr. Maurit Beeri. The idea of ALYN is to get the children back to their home environment as quickly as possible with as much independence as possible.
Some of the patients at ALYN are Palestinians, like Maria Aman, 18, who was injured 13 years ago in Gaza, and today lives in Israel with her father and brother. She comes back periodically for checkups and even respite care.
“Maria was injured in a rocket attack when Israel targeted somebody that Israel wanted dead and her family was in the car next to this person’s car,” Beeri said. “Her mother was killed, several other family members were killed, and she had spinal cord injury, which means she is completely paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator for life.”
The Israeli army took responsibility for the attack, and funded Maria’s rehabilitation. At one point they wanted to transfer her to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
But ALYN Hospital went to court to prevent this, claiming the Palestinian hospital did not have the sophisticated equipment Maria needs, and won the case. While Maria lives independently today, she says, “They took really good care of me here, and I felt good. They gave me great treatment and my situation is better now.”
Also making progress is Dalal, daughter of Palestinian Malak Natche. Born prematurely at only 23 weeks with extensive developmental problems, Dalal was later transferred to ALYN and has stayed there for the last year and a half.
“This is the best hospital I met in my life. They helped me so much – from getting me food, from making her move, making her stand up. They do the best for Dalal and for me,” her mother, Malak Natche, said.
While Malak stays in the hospital with Dalal during the week, every weekend they go home to east Jerusalem, bringing large amounts of equipment and oxygen ALYN gives them.
Beeri says the hospital believes in caring for the families of the patients as well as the patients themselves.
“Every single person who works in this hospital undergoes special training in what we call cultural competency or cultural accessibility to have the ears and the eyes to understand how the concepts are received,” she said.
For example, they make sure that Orthodox Jews, whether patients or family, can keep Shabbat. During Ramadan, the kitchen makes special meals for breaking the fast for those who might be fasting. There is no alcohol served in the hospital, even for staff events like a New Years’ toast.
Meanwhile, back at the medal-giving ceremony at ALYN, there are hugs and tears as many of the riders prepare to return home. They know they will be back next year, to ride again, and raise money for the hospital.