MADISON (WKOW) -- For Bret Schuhart, the bicycle is both a crutch and a source of freedom.
"I'm never pain-free, walking is an extreme challenge for me," said Schuhart at Vilas Park in Madison just before he set out on another training ride for the ACT 7 AIDS Ride.
"People just look at me and they wonder how I'm able to ride a bike."
Schuhart is unable to stand straight up on his own, due to a history of injuries, infections, and complications. The story of his health goes back 27 years.
"Initially I fell off a cliff 70 feet, back in 1982, and that's what started all my spine issues," he said describing a climbing excursion on Gibraltar Rock near Lodi. "My lower back is fused with metal rods from when I fell off the cliff."
He was laid up in a body cast for nine months. He would heal from that, but life kept throwing challenges.
In 1994, Schuhart was diagnosed with HIV. His emotions then tumbled. "Anyone with HIV or AIDS struggles with depression," he said. "You wonder why you should try anymore."
Schuhart describes the years that followed as ones filled with harsh life lessons about living with the disease. Finding someone to share his life with seemed impossible after he would reveal his status.
"One of the harshest realities for me was that having children was no longer an option."
Drug cocktails became the norm, including more drugs meant to pacify the side effects of the pills that more directly treat the virus and his immune system.
Schuhart said he came a shut-in. With a weakening immune system, he repeatedly developed pneumonia.
Three years after his diagnosis, he sought help from AIDS Network. A case worker was assigned. Volunteers would show up to do house chores like snow shoveling and raking. He found small personal items like laundry detergent through the center's pantry service. Schuhart even sought legal advice through the agency.
"There's just a wide gambit of things I've been able to tap into."
Then in 2007, an infection struck his neck. "We're thinking it was some residual infection from the pneumonia that I had struggled with, which is indirectly related to a compromised immune system."
Doctors removed vertebrae. He spent six months back in a body cast. It was during that rehabilitation in a pool where Schuhart found the motivation to not only heal, but to improve to the point that he could participate as a first-time rider in the ACT 7 AIDS Ride.
He recounted advice he received from an uncle. "It made me realize after being a shut-in in my house for a couple of years, it was time to expand my world, and I was the only one that could do that."
With another surgery slated for September to straighten his back, Brett Schuhart decided to challenge himself to ride 300 miles in four days through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin as a way to get in shape for the looming procedure.
"We all have struggles in life, we all need help to get through those struggles, and we can't forget to help the people who get us through those struggles," he said.
Schuhart will have help. When another ACT rider heard his life story, the out-of-state rider lent a bike won in a raffle two months ago, and donated it to Brett. It's easier to pedal and lighter in weight than Schuhart's last bike.
"It was like getting into a Corvette compared to a Chevy Vega," he laughs.
The new bike now resembles Bret's new path in life, hoping to make it easier up any obstacle thrown his way.
"It's been an overwhelming experience, and it's only just begun," he said.
"I'm scared, but I'm excited," he added. "If I can't that's cool, but I'm determined to do the whole 300 (miles). At least, I hope."
Email Carl Gamely at email@example.com