Man’s Coast-to-Coast Bike Ride Benefits Kids with Heart Defects

July 30, 2018 6:00 AM

A cross-country trip is more than a solitary challenge for one Michigan cyclist. The ride is meant to highlight congenital heart disease research and care.

It wasn’t until John Maus spoke to a woman inside a McDonald’s in Kansas that he realized the wide reach of University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

LISTEN UP: Add the new Michigan Medicine News Break to your Alexa-enabled device, or subscribe to our daily audio updates on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

“They saved her life,” says Maus, who encountered the former patient while bicycling across the country in support of Save A Heart, a program that raises money to provide financial relief and support services for Mott patients with congenital heart disease. The fund also supports research and clinical innovation.

“It’s been really eye-opening.”

Those shared moments have been many during a 4,300-mile journey that extends from Virginia to Oregon. Maus’ trip began May 14; it’s set to end in early August.

The effort, Riding for Life, is a solo pursuit for the cyclist.

And the coast-to-coast route is taking longer than it otherwise might because Maus is stopping in cities where he can generate media coverage — and more funds for Save A Heart.

His goal: $43,000, or $10 for every mile pedaled.

“I’m trying to spread this message and get as much support for the hospital as I can,” the 29-year-old says, chuckling when asked how he stays motivated when cycling for days on end.

“I don’t know, man. Once I’m committed, I’m committed.”

A heartfelt effort

Although Maus lacks direct ties to Mott, he does have a personal one: His boss lost a young child to congenital heart disease five years ago.

That child, Sawyer Bruursema, died at 10 weeks old in August 2013 after being born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome — a rare birth defect in which the left side of a baby’s heart does not develop properly while in the mother’s womb. Sawyer underwent open-heart surgery at Mott and stayed there for six weeks.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

His father, Jordan, still speaks highly of the treatment and compassion that Sawyer and the entire family received from Mott: “They gave us amazing care.”

Maus, meanwhile, had been itching to bike across the United States but had never made formal plans until his colleague’s grief struck a chord.

“For me, it was a what-are-you-waiting-for type of thing,” says Maus, who spoke by phone from a pit stop in tiny Ness City, Kansas. “I wanted this trek to mean something more.”

That’s why the rising Central Michigan University senior is speaking out to people he meets along the way about the sobering statistics of congenital heart disease.

The diagnosis, he notes, affects nearly 1 in 110 babies and requires lifelong care.

“It’s the No. 1 birth defect in the country,” Maus says.

With one of the largest and best pediatric heart programs in the United States, Mott is also an international referral center for children with complex congenital heart disease.

The need for aid and progress is great: Everyone who Maus has encountered along the ride, it seems, has a story to share.

Going the distance

A former wildlife firefighter in Oregon and South Dakota, Maus has endured his share of physical challenges to help prepare him for the long-haul ride.

He once entered remote blazes draped in heavy equipment. As the job required, he worked 16-hour shifts for two consecutive weeks. He dug ditches and operated machinery.

SEE ALSO: A Day in the Life of Mott Children’s NICU Nurses

“That changed my mind on how to think about stuff like this,” Maus says, referring to the seemingly impossible bike ride.

And it has made cycling through extreme heat and downpours, subsisting on discount and donated food and sleeping without a tent (“I was mauled by insects last night”) seem less grim.

Likewise, the strength of young patients at Mott and elsewhere facing the challenges of congenital heart disease provides plenty of motivation.

“They’re the ones I’m doing this for,” Maus says.

Jordan Bruursema, who also runs an outdoor apparel company that donates $1 from each sale to Save A Heart, is eager for the bike ride to help educate others.

“If you or your family is not affected, sometimes you don’t hear about congenital heart disease,” he says. “To have John spreading that awareness across the country is a pretty amazing thing.”

To learn more about Riding for Life, visit the Facebook page or Maus’ online fundraising page.