Man helps self, children by fixing bikes

Beloit man and his wife fight back against early-onset Alzheimer's with bike project.
By Anna Marie Lux

BELOIT--There's no mistaking where Brian Reece lives.

Just pull in where you see the bikes, lots of them, in all conditions.

Most likely, Brian will have a bike on his work table in the garage.

In recent months, he has built many specialty bikes for kids with disabilities, including cerebral palsy and autism.

In addition, he fixes and rebuilds regular bikes with his wife, Anne Marie, at their Beloit home.

They have given away 430-plus bikes to Rock County children in less than a year--more than 200 since April.

The no-cost bikes alone could make them legendary.

But the story behind their free wheeling is even more compelling.

In 2011, Brian's doctor told him he has early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

In his 50s, Brian wondered why he got an illness normally associated with older people.

About a year ago, a friend gave Brian some bikes and asked if he wanted to fix them. Brian used skills he learned as a boy. He struggled with short-term memory, but his long-term memory—including bicycle repair—remained intact.

Soon, he accepted more old bikes and parts to transform into sturdy rides for needy kids.

Today, the bikes keep Brian moving

“They give him a reason to get up in the morning,” Anne Marie said. “It keeps his mind challenged. He is doing well, and I attribute it to the bike project.”

Anne Marie is determined to stay positive in spite of an irreversible illness that destroys her husband's brain cells.

“We are not going to sit on the couch and feel sorry for ourselves,” she said. “We have always been a team, and now we are both using our strengths to help other people.”

Their yard is a happy place, where children's dreams come true. Many of the parents who come to them cannot afford bikes for their kids. Nor can they afford specially made bikes.

 “I get a lot of joy out of fixing and delivering the bikes,” said Brian, looking youthful in his red Marines T-shirt. “I also do this to keep my mind as active as possible.”

He served in the Marines in the late 1970s and made sergeant in less than three years. More recently, Brian was a driver with Chambers and Owen for 19 years until retiring because of his illness.

Brian began having symptoms while he still was working. At first, he developed coping skills to handle his forgetfulness.

At the same time, Anne Marie noticed Brian could not remember things she told him.

“When I talked to him about it, he was very defensive,” she said. “We both came up with excuses as to why it was happening, like stress and not enough sleep.”

She also saw changes in his personality. He no longer wanted to be involved in activities with their grandkids and withdrew from people.

“If I would have let him, he would have just stayed on the couch and watched TV,” Anne Marie said.

She further noticed he could not do simple problem solving. He had a hard time talking because he could not come up with the right words. He forgot to comb his hair and brush his teeth.

In 2010, the Reeces mentioned their concerns to Brian's doctor. Slowly, they began trying things to help Brian, including a better diet and antidepressant medicine.

Later, Brian's doctor referred him to a neurologist, who conducted lab tests to rule out seizures and rare diseases. Eventually, the doctor made a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's, which was confirmed by a second opinion.

Of all the people with Alzheimer's disease, only 5 percent to 10 percent develop symptoms before age 65.  

Doctor Sanjay Asthna is the chief investigator and director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, Madison, and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“Younger people with Alzheimer's are coming to our medical attention,” he said. “But there is no evidence that the disease is increasing. People are more aware and are seeking help earlier.”

He said it is critical that patients remain engaged in life.

“The diagnosis is devastating, no matter what your age,” Asthna said. “Given that we have no cure for the disease, the most important way to deal with it is to accept the diagnosis and to make adjustments in your life. The most important adjustment is finding a mission. Some studies say it may slow the disease and keep away depression.”

Steve Bartz works with people who have Alzheimer's at the Janesville Geriatric Assessment Center, Mercy Clinic South.

“The medicine we have is modest at best,” Bartz said. “So we try to encourage people to stay fit both mentally and physically because it helps with general wellness.”

Bartz is a certified family and geriatric medicine doctor.

He said there's a national effort by several agencies to bring awareness to early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

“This is a scary journey,” Anne Marie said. “But the sooner you catch it, the better off you will be.”

She was a special education teacher for 26 years and is known for her optimism.

“In spite of Alzheimer's, we live a happy life,” she said. “But Brian faces daily struggles.”

Anne Marie helps him with his medicine. She reminds him what day, month and season it is. She encourages him when he gets frustrated.

“I don't think I could do this alone,” Brian said.

After he began taking medicine to slow the disease, he showed improvement. He also takes coconut oil, and Anne Marie said it has improved his memory. But there is no scientific research to show that it works.

Brian and Anne Marie have four sons and nine grandkids.

“I'm not waiting for the disease to catch me,” Brian said. “I've got too many graduations and too many weddings yet to attend.”

Both have taken trips in their restored 1955 Chevy since Brian's diagnosis. Both go to a support group for people with early-onset Alzheimer's, called Without Warning, that meets in Elmhurst, Ill. They attended a regular support group but found that the people were much older than themselves.

In November, it became clear to Anne Marie that Brian could not keep up with the demand for bikes.

“I realized my job was more than Brian's secretary,” she said. “I had to help or he would never be able to keep up. I knew nothing about fixing bikes, but I quickly learned.”

If you doubt their impact on parents and children, just listen to Sara Hessian of Janesville:

“My experience with Brian and Anne was nothing short of magical,” she said. “It is hard to find people with such dedication.”

They fixed her son's bike and gave her daughter a three-wheeled scooter.

“They have the power to make kids smile,” Hessian said. “I wish I could make a difference for them. I wish I could win the lottery so I could donate all the bikes in the world to their cause.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email [email protected].