Resilience, determination, perseverance.
Those qualities have defined Craig Cunningham’s long road to recovery following a cardiac arrest prior to an American League Hockey game back on Nov. 19, 2016.
The aftermath of that incident left the Trail native with the partial loss of his left leg, ended his hockey career, but never dampened his spirit, outlook on life or belief that he would recover.
Less than three months later he was lacing up his skates and hitting the ice.
Those qualities, that three-month sequence and the doctor who saved his life, are all part of the inspiration that is pushing Craig’s brother Ryan to tackle the monumental task of cycling from Castlegar to Tuscon, AZ in August.
Ryan Cunningham plans to depart Castlegar on Aug. 3, arrive in Tuscon around Aug. 18 and raise money for the All Heart Foundation started by Craig and Dr. Zain Khalpey, the cardiothoracic surgeon who saved his life, and to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest.
Covering over 2,500 kilometres on a bicycle in the middle of the summer, especially through Nevada and Arizona, is a daunting task for anyone. But as Ryan describes it, the journey is a drop in the bucket compared to what his brother went through.
And that will be the fuel in his tank for the entire trip.
“With what Craig went through and being part of those extremes, and how difficult it would have been for him to lose his ability to play hockey, I saw the way his spirit carried him through it.
“So if I was going to do something to support his foundation, that he believes in so much, it was going to have to reflect Craig’s spirit.”
That’s why Ryan has dubbed his journey “Pushing the Envelope Trek to Fight Cardiac Arrest.”
“That symbolizes Craig making incremental progress in his recovery and his determination to move forward in, however, small steps at a time to complete a very long distance.
“And the other side of that is Dr. Khalpey, Craig started the foundation with him. So he’s a big part of what the ride symbolizes.”
Ryan described the days following Craig’s collapse and how the doctors debated what do to next while he was on life support.
“His toes were turning black and they couldn’t find a pulse in his left leg. I just wanted so badly for someone to do something to save his leg.”
That’s when Dr. Khalpey used an oxygenaton machine, designed to pump a patient’s blood outside the body allowing the heart and lungs to rest. That allowed the doctor to perform emergency surgery to assist Craig’s heart.
Ryan explained Dr. Khalpey’s confidence in his abilities and his determination to save Craig’s life were difference-makers at a crucial time.
“He knew he could pull off this surgery. They saved a lot of his leg.
“Again it symbolizes, for me, pushing yourself, push the boundary a little bit and get ahead of where you were.”
Ryan is hoping that spirit and determination carries him all the way to Tuscon. But his immediate goal is preparing himself for the journey.
“I probably decided to do this in February. I started training indoors on an exercise bike. The winter dragged on, so I was only getting out for the odd ride until early May. By late May is when I started getting out for the longer distance rides.”
He lives in Castlegar now so his training, on his days off from Teck Trail, took him from Castlegar to Nancy Greene Lake, to Trail and back to Castlegar. He’s done that as many as five times over a three-day period.
Add in the rides over the Bombi and Kootenay passes to Creston and back, and Ryan is gradually building up his stamina and distance before tackling the challenge.
His fiancée will accompany him in a support vehicle. He has his route planned and his goal set.
But the main impetus is to help his brother’s foundation.
“One thing people can do is I have a Facebook page called Pushing the Envelope Trek to Fight Cardiac Arrest. On the page, there is a donate button that will take you to a GoFundMe site.
“Or people can go directly to allheartfoundation.org and you can donate directly.”
There will be a third way to donate to the foundation on July 26 when the Trail Firefighters Local 941 will be hosting a boot drive outside Ferraro Foods to raise money for Ryan’s ride. The times will be announced soon.
“We are very passionate about this cause as firefighters are more at risk than the general public to suffer a cardiac arrest,” says Trail firefighter Matt Larmour. “And it is the leading cause of on-duty deaths in our profession.”
Larmour explained that the All Heart Foundation is focusing its efforts on technology to help detect irregular heart rates.
“This app that Craig’s foundation is working towards is going to save firefighters lives as well as prevent some of the cardiac arrest emergencies that we respond to.
“It is an amazing thing that Ryan is doing and we are trying to support him any way that we can and we hope the public will come support him as well.”