Get Your Motor Running: Rainbow Social Workers Give Patient One Final Motorcycle Ride
Whenever Steve Cunningham had the chance to hop on his motorcycle, there wasn’t a better feeling in the world for him. Hearing the roar of the engine as he would speed down the open road gave him a rush of adrenaline along with access to almost any destination and a sense of freedom with nothing in the way.
“I loved the open scenery. There are just certain things you can see on a bike that you can’t see by car,” said Cunningham.
Steve was a longtime Harley rider and even made a trip down to South Florida by himself. He used to take trips riding all over with his wife, Sandra. She passed away in August of 2020 after a long illness. Steve keeps her ashes with him in his room and talks with her daily. He hopes to have his ashes mixed with hers and placed in one urn when that time comes so they can be reunited.
Unfortunately, for almost two years, Steve hasn’t been able to experience that same feeling of being out on the open road. Steve not only lost his wife, but his health started to decline, and his energy waned. Now he is a Rainbow Hospice Care patient and resident at Fort Atkinson Health Care Center. Steve still has the itch to ride. But he had to sell his motorcycle when he moved into the nursing home. Getting back on a bike again with his illness seemed nearly impossible. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a ride seemed more unlikely.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get on or close to a bike anymore,” Cunningham said.
But Rainbow social worker Leslie Anderson found out in her conversations with Steve that they shared a special bond. They both loved to ride motorcycles.
“Steve thought he would never get out again,” said Anderson. “Steve talked about a staff member at Fort Atkinson Health Care Center who pulls up outside his window when the weather gets warm and revs his bike for him. Steve got joy out of just hearing that bike. He often spoke about wanting to get strong enough to get back out and ride.”
As facilities eased COVID-19 restrictions, Leslie started thinking about how she could get Steve out for a ride again in a motorcycle’s sidecar.
“I know how much it means to me to get out on the road, so I knew it would be important to Steve,” Anderson said. “It’s an indescribable experience to be out on a Harley with the wind in your hair. I knew that would be one thing that would make him happy. He didn’t think I could pull it off but said it would be great if I could.”
Leslie only rides solo, so she doesn’t have a sidecar, but knew that another Rainbow social worker, Sarah Phalin, also has a passion for motorcycles. Sarah grew up riding on the back of motorcycles and in a sidecar with her dad and still rides today.
Sarah had never met Steve before, and he wasn’t one of her patients on her caseload. But when she heard about his love for motorcycles, she was eager to help make his wish come true.
“Here at Rainbow we know that every patient is our patient and helping them on their journey is our number one job,” Anderson said. “We don’t say, ‘that’s not my job to do,’ we just help the patients. We are truly a team and that is the experience our patients receive. Many voices and many hands make everything richer.”
Sarah enlisted the help of several friends, including Jamie Branton, who volunteered to give Steve a ride in his Slingshot, which is essentially a three-wheeled combination of a car and motorcycle. She also got in touch with Bill Kincaid, a member of the 72 Twisted Shifters and Sisters, a Motorcycle Association founded in Wisconsin in 2013. Their motto is good people, doing good things. They help out in their communities and donate their time to support many benefits and events.
Leslie and Sarah then coordinated with the staff at Fort Atkinson Health Care Center to plan the specifics of Steve’s ride.
When they gave Steve the news that the wheels were in motion for him to go for a ride, he thought they were joking.
“It was a shock for me at first,” Cunningham said. “I mean a big shock. Because normally, I just lie in bed. Occasionally I go up and down the hall in my wheelchair.”
His excitement continued to grow as the actual day got closer.
“Steve was like a kid when we talked about it,” Anderson said. “I went to see him the Friday before the ride, and he teased me that we were all more excited than he was. But he was trying to be a tough guy hiding his excitement.”
Everything was set for Sunday afternoon, June 27. Great weather made it a perfect day for Steve’s ride.
Sarah and a group of about 35 riders met at Lucy’s Hideaway in Milton and rode into Fort together.
During that time, Leslie helped Steve pick out some clothes, and they decided on something that was “Harley” appropriate. Some Fort Atkinson Health Care Center staff brought Steve outside just as the group of riders arrived so he could see everyone driving in together.
“Everyone turned off their bikes and were so happy to be there for him, even though they didn’t know him,” said Phalin.
Up until that moment, Steve wasn’t quite ready to believe it yet, but when he saw all the motorcycles roll in, that’s when everything started to sink in for him that his wish was about to come true.
“Just as the bikes rolled in, his eyes lit up,” Anderson said.
Sarah then came to talk to him to see if he was ready to go.
Sarah and Leslie talk with Steve.
“He said, ‘you didn’t have to do all this for me,” Phalin said. “He looked great in his Harley gear and we were all excited to ride with him.”
After being helped into his seat, Sarah, Leslie, and some staff made sure Steve was comfortable before the group took off down the road.
The Slingshot has the look of a Batmobile, but it was Steve Cunningham who had his chance to feel like a superhero on this day.
“He was able to feel the wind in his hair and hear the bikes in front and behind him,” Phalin said.
They stopped at Island Bar in Fort. Sarah talked to the owner the week before and they had blocked off a spot for Jamie to pull in with the Slingshot. Steve couldn’t get out of the vehicle, but they ordered him a Coke and he chatted with many of the bikers. He also shared fond memories of fishing upstream from that spot.
The final surprise came when the other riders presented Steve with a signed Harley t-shirt by everyone who helped make the ride possible. Finally, it was time to head back to Fort Atkinson Health Care Center so Steve could get some rest.
“Steve was excited and very happy,” Phalin said. “You could tell the ride took a lot out of him.”
It took a team effort leading up to that day to carry out Steve’s memorable ride. Bill worked with Sarah every step of the way in the planning process. Sarah’s parents Ken and Laura Peche, and her lifelong friends Mike and Jamie Busse, and Rachael Post also were an integral part of the ride’s realization. Rachael and Sarah’s daughter Callie also tagged along to snap pictures and capture video throughout the ride. Sarah and Leslie’s collaboration and their desire to bring some joy into Steve’s life were instrumental in making his dream a reality.
“It says a lot about who we are at Rainbow,” Phalin said. “We work together as a team to care for our patients at one of the most important times of their lives. We can rely on each other’s knowledge and resources to not only care for people but help carry out their wishes.”
Even though it was a short ride for Steve, it turned out to be a memorable day for him and everyone else who was there and a day they won’t soon forget.
“He was exhausted but when he settled into the wheelchair, one of the riders asked if he thought it was worth it, and Steve gave a big smile and said he would go again,” Anderson said.
“Seeing the smile on his face when we pulled in and him wiping away tears brought me to tears and made all of the organizing worthwhile,” Phalin said.
A few weeks later, Steve’s final wish would come true. He reunited with his beloved wife. Steve Cunningham passed away at Fort Atkinson Health Care Center on Sunday, July 11 at the age of 61.