By Kristi Lynn
They say that life can change in an instant. And when it does, in the most tragic and unexpected way, it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming you want to give up. But you may just discover it’s easier to tackle adversity when you’re not alone.
For instance, take Chuck Fritz.
He was riding a local bike path one day earlier this summer when he happened upon John Zevalkink who was riding a recumbent trike (a bike with two wheels in the front and one in the back). The two men carried on a lengthy conversation about their mutual love of trike riding, when Zevalkink began to leave. It wasn’t until that moment that Fritz realized Zevalkink had suffered a stroke, when he observed him using one hand to secure the other on the handlebars before leaving.
“Until then, I didn’t realize he had suffered a stroke,” said Fritz.
In October of 2016, Zevalkink, from Spring Lake, had taken a day off from work and was going to enjoy a day of fishing with some friends. He owned a family business in Grand Rapids that employed 300 people which kept him very busy. He had recently decided it was time to enjoy life more and had planned on cutting back his hours, working part time a few days a week from home.
That day, designed for relaxation and friendship, the beginning of a semi-retirement of sorts, turned out to be one Zevalkink would never forget.
While lifting some beverages out of his vehicle at the boat launch and waiting for his fishing buddies to arrive, he dropped everything. He fell to the ground and was unable to pull himself back up and return to his feet. He couldn’t use his right arm and he couldn’t get up.
When one of his friends arrived, he realized that Zevalkink had suffered a stroke and needed immediate attention. He was taken to Spectrum Hospital where he spent 2 days in the Intensive Care Unit. He spent months in rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed facility until January, 2020.
Prior to that, Zevalkink was extremely active. He enjoyed snow skiing, liked to swim and loved spending time on his boat.
“I couldn’t sit up or stand,” he said. “And I had to walk with a cane. It was a major thing to just move around. I couldn’t multi-task, so driving, I was told, would be impossible.”
An extremely determined man, he could not accept that sentence of immobility. He wanted to walk again, and just as importantly, he wanted to drive. With pure drive and a “never say never” attitude, he was able to get his driver’s license back thru an intensive therapy program at Mary Free Bed.
The Adaptive Sports Department at Mary Free Bed had a therapist on staff that introduced Zevalkink to the three-wheeled trike.
“He asked me if I had ever ridden a bike,” said Zelalkin, who was then told about the benefits of the bike. “It got me really excited.”
He came home in January and started trolling the internet and found a trike on Craig’s List.
“It was brand new and I bought it immediately,” he said.
After just 1 year, Zevalkink could hold the handlebars without the aid of the Velcro straps that previously wrapped around his hands to secure his grasp. And now, he up to riding 30 miles a day.
Learning to ride a recumbent trike, which has equipment specifically set up for each individual’s special needs, has given Zevalkink his independence back.
“If you work and are persistent, believe you can do it, you can,” he said.
That determination is shared by his new friend and stroke survivor Rick Kritzman, of Whitehall.
A simple conversation shared by Fritz and Zevalkink that day on the bike path was about to result in another life being forever changed.
While talking with Zevalkink on the bike path that day, Fritz had an idea. The trike had changed Zevalkink’s life after his stroke and he just knew that his friend could benefit by it as well. Another life was about to take a 180-degree turn for the better.
Kritzman was not only an employee of Fritz, but also his best friend. While Fritz was chatting with Zevalkink, he immediately knew that a trike, this special trike, could benefit his friend.
“I knew he (Rick) could ride this. I just knew it was possible for him to do,” Fritz said.
And he was eager to make it happen.
Kritzman had a stroke this past January.
“I was dizzy one day and in the hospital the next,” he said.
While driving home from Grand Rapids with his wife, he started experiencing an uneasy feeling. He asked his wife if she would finish the drive home. When he got home, he took a nap, ate dinner and then he slept again. When he got up, he said, his speech was slurred and his right side felt “funny.”
“That day started a whole new life for me,’’ said Kritzman. “I had goals when I was working. Mid life, long term. Then the stroke hit like a whiteboard. I had to erase everything and start over.”
An avid golfer, Kritzman was also just putting the finishing touches on a book he was writing about self help. Kritzman would later say that following his stroke, he had to go back to his manuscript and change a few things. His book is now titled, Stroke of Genius.
Fritz was determined to get his friend on a trike. Dan Zimmerman, founder of Spokes Fighting Strokes, out of Tucson, Arizona was pivotal in Kritzman’s journey to independence. Together, with Zevalkink, the men hatched a plan.
Zimmerman suffered a stroke in 2005 that paralyzed his right arm and leg and damaged the left side of his brain. He was told he would never walk or talk again. Zimmerman had to shut down his wood working business and focus on recovery. He was in a wheelchair, unable to walk, independently and he could barely talk.
In 2009, Zimmerman bought a recumbent trike and began riding. He now rides 500-700 miles a month. And he tours around the country hauling a trailer with 10 special recumbent trikes for individuals to try. He lets people try the trike and helps set them up for each individual’s needs. He says riding has given him a purpose in life and improved his health. He wants to raise awareness of stroke prevention and inspire other stroke survivors.
Zevalkink has a home in Tucson and looked up Zimmerman online. They had a commonality and a passion for their trikes. They soon became friends and rode together every two weeks while he was staying in Arizona.
The Ottawa County Parks organization was getting close to completing the bike path loop for the Greenway and Parks Project this summer and Zevalkink thought what a great way to get the word out about the recumbent trikes. So, he invited his friend Zimmerman to speak at their upcoming event at Grand Haven’s Connors Bayou on July 25. The 36-mile trail follows the river, connecting Grand Rapids and Grand Haven and can be explored on foot, bike or kayak.
Zimmerman agreed to speak and would soon meet Kritzman, who was in a wheelchair.
“I knew the event was coming up, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,’’ said Kritzman.
He made excuses, but eventually decided to make the trek. Fritz brought him to the event and he listened to Zimmerman’s inspirational words.
“I was the only one in a wheelchair and there were lots of people there,” Kritzman said. “After listening to Dan talk I was really enthused. Dan put me on the trike and I took off right away. I had a great big smile on my face. And I rode all the way up and around the loop.”
On August 10, Kritzman received his trike, which has been completely personalized to fit his needs. And he has named it “Freedom.” He put on 115 miles in just three weeks after getting it.
“If I go one day off I’m going nuts,” he said, “My legs are stronger and I’m more vibrant. It’s so therapeutic for me.”
“I am so thankful I met them,” he said, in reference to Zimmerman and Zevalkink. “I can’ t describe what they’ve all done for me. I feel so much freer and normal. I feel like nobody can tell I have a disability.”
And he is forever grateful for his relationship with Fritz, whom he says has “always been so supportive of me.”
Kritzman still has another big goal on his horizon. He wants to golf again.
“I have a goal for next year, but I have to be able to stand without a cane,” he said. “I may have to swing one handed and I might not score well, but I’m going to do it.”
His son gave him a gift to inspire that goal. He gave him a putter that when turned upside down becomes a cane. Just a little added inspiration for a man determined to not let a stroke rule his life.
“If I can touch one person’s life and let them know that they are not alone,” said Kritzman “I will introduce them to the trike.”
Life is so much easier when you are surrounded by good friends.