'Motorcycle' helps chair-bound vets get behind wheel

Paul Clark
Garry Segal guides veteran Gary Hedrick on a motorcycle simulator at N.C. State Veterans Nursing Home in Black Mountain

It's a beautiful California afternoon. Gary Hedrick is tooling on his motorcycle beside the ocean. The scene, virtual though it is, couldn't be more gorgeous.

And then around the corner ahead comes a bus. A big bus. Hedrick's face is stony; it hasn't changed since he was wheeled up to the motorcycle simulator. As passive as he may seem to be, tension rises in the room - the bus is getting closer. Quickly.

Watch out, say the physical therapists attending other vets waiting to ride at the N.C. State Veterans Nursing Home in Black Mountain.

"Don't hit that bus," Garry Segal says, his voice barely above a whisper. The guy who brings the simulator to the veterans home every week, his eyes are locked onto the screen, onto the bus. He's sitting close enough to Hedrick to help him apply the brakes if necessary. "Don't hit that bus ..."

" ... or the guardrail," occupational therapy assistant Chrysse Everhart says three times as Hedrick's motorcycle weaves across the road, back and forth, right into the rail. Bam, big collision. Game over.

Segal sits back and relaxes. He looks at Hedrick, who is still looking at the screen. "I'm glad you crashed it," Segal says, "because I was getting dizzy."

Garry Segal’s hand, on top, gently guides Clyde LaFevers.

Segal, a motorcycle rider for some 30 years now, operates a motorcycle therapy program under the auspices of the Hendersonville-based Let's Twist Again Foundation ( He uses a SMARTrainer virtual motorcycle machine made by Honda, a device that the Motorcycle Safety Foundation uses to train riders in the military.

Segal has been trained by the foundation. He has worked in health care for about 20 years, some of it as a recreational therapy director. He takes the motorcycle therapy program to rehabilitation hospitals and facilities throughout Western North Carolina. He can modify the equipment to accommodate wheelchairs or to be set up on hospital beds.

"I sit here with folks, keep them on track," he says as Hedrick cruises down the virtual highway again. "Teach them how to do it. The idea is to … whoa," he says, interrupted by Hedrick's speed descending a steep hill. "You know what's going on, right?" he asks him. "Bottom of the hill, that sharp left turn. Get ready with that brake."

Hedrick, a retired Air Force sergeant from Lexington, nudges the handlebars, bringing the bike back into its lane. Segal smiles. "Good, getting it under control," he says.

The device is set to simulate a perfect day for riding along the coast. The machine has several riding scenarios, each of which challenges the rider in different ways. "Like here we got a sharp left," Segal says. "Sharp left, left, left!"

Boom, Hedrick's motorcycle collides with an oncoming a red sports car. Like a chorus, the attendants sing their sympathy.

"That's all right," Segal says, looking at Hedrick, "you made the corner. That's the trickiest spot in the whole thing."

Segal is as much cheerleader as he is coach. With Hedrick, he watches the instant replay of the accident, a feature the program deploys so that riders can learn from their mistakes. "We get to try it again," he says to Hedrick. "We just start over again."

Segal is as encouraging as he is patient. But he's certainly the coach. He coaches Hedrick through restarting the stalled engine, suggesting that Hedrick knows how to do it while telling him all the same. "Which means," he says after noticing that Hedrick isn't really starting it back up, not yet anyway, "that he's got to pull the brake in and hit the starter, just like a regular motorcycle."

All the controls on the device work just like they do on a real bike. The steering is a little tighter since drivers can't lean into curves like they can on the road. On the SMARTrainer, it's all in the wrists and arms and upper body, which is part of the appeal for the veterans nursing home. Driving this thing is a bit of exercise, a bit extra, maybe more than the residents would get if Segal didn't come around. And it's engaging, which keeps the synapses firing and the mind sharp.

Ron Harwood takes his turn behind the handlebars.

Segal's work with veterans is important "to keep them active, to keep them engaged, focused," he says. "I work with a lot of people with dementia issues, and it's really surprising how many of them are able to focus their old driving skills. Their old survival skills poke through, and all of a sudden, they're pretty focused. They want to stay on the road.

"I've had many family members, caregivers, be very surprised at how focused they stayed on this motorcycle ride. They (the riders) will have some very coherent conversations with me that they wouldn't normally have. Those driving memories come back. They'll say, 'whoops, I ran the light' or 'I should get back over in my lane.' It's a big deal to hear them say it."

"Some of them who hardly move," Everhart says, "will initiate some movement. On the other hand, you'll have people whose movements are an exaggeration, and they'll modulate more" on the machine.

For the veterans, driving the SMARTrainer is creative in that there are narrow lanes of options from which they can choose, all passing at speeds as high as the drivers want to go.

"It's hard not to grab the wheel and prevent people from crashing," Segal says, watching Hedrick's progress down the road, "but sometimes they need to crash. I want them to be as independent as they can be."