By Karen Billing
On May 5, on a bike loaded with 93 pounds of equipment, 71-year-old Peter Karch set off on a solo, cross-country bike trek from Carpinteria to Assateague, Virginia.
Karch is not only attempting to break his own 10-year-old record but to raise funds and awareness for the nonprofit Awakenings Health Institute in Solana Beach owned by his daughter Laura Karch-Gries.
A Del Mar resident, Laura, 36, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age 18 and learned to walk again, founded Awakenings as a rehabilitation facility to restore the lives and health of people challenged by paralysis.
Karch aims to shave time off his record of 61 days for the 4,046 miles of unsupported, lonely, sometimes scary, sometimes sweltering ride across country.
He thinks if his age is a limitation, how different is it from what his daughter’s clients face? Karch said he’s out to prove that “the only limitations you have are the goals you set for yourself.”
Awakenings is a nonprofit that treats people who have suffered from strokes, spinal cord and brain injuries, and all neurological disorders, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Several patients are young veterans of war. Awakenings offers all different kinds of physical, emotional, mental, recreational and social therapies under one roof — fitness, Chinese medicine, adaptive yoga, nutrition, massage and bodywork, cognitive therapies, social integration and therapeutic recreation.
Clients apply for grants and sponsorships to go through therapies at Awakenings so the organization relies heavily on donors and community support.
“99.1 percent of our clients who have left in the last eight years of business have been because of a lack of funding. That always breaks our hearts,” said Laura, noting her father’s trek is the organization’s first fundraiser in an effort to grow its financial assistance fund. “If we can get that fund to be enormous, we can help even more people… These people need so much help in every facet of life.”
Laura said the people they serve have lives that were changed in the blink of an eye. The changes are not only traumatic but they are expensive — the costs of 24-hour care can escalate to over $120,000 a year and insurance often does not cover stroke or spinal cord injury victims once they leave the hospital.
“It’s very hard to get the treatment that they need because they certainly can’t pay for it,” Laura said.
Laura said her parents and family have always been huge supporters of Awakenings and it means so much to her that her father would put in the risky mileage to raise money and awareness for her cause.
She worries, especially after watching him peddle off alone under so much weight.
“It was a little scary seeing him go off,” said Laura. “But his mentality is steel. He’s a bull. If he sets out to do something, he will definitely accomplish it.”
Karch is just as complimentary about his daughter.
“She’s an amazing girl,” Karch said of Laura. “We convinced her that she is a motivator for the people she’s working with and they should know what she’s gone through.”
The crash is still difficult for Karch to talk about, even so many years later.
He and his wife were traveling in New Jersey, coming back from visiting the Karchs’ son at Columbia University. Laura was in the backseat, without her seatbelt on. She was 18 years old, on spring break from her freshman year of college at the University of Delaware.
Karch said the driver of a tractor-trailer got antsy as traffic backed up on the freeway and cut into their lane. The trailer sideswiped their car, spun them, turned them around and hit them head-on. The Karchs’ car tumbled down a median and Laura was thrown out 32 feet.
Laura had broken her neck and was paralyzed from the neck down.
All of her life, Laura had been an athlete. She loved exercising and played tennis, soccer and softball. She had never been in a hospital before her accident and with the gift of youth and not knowing any better, she was undaunted when the doctor said she would not walk again without some kind of assistance device and that her rehabilitation would be the hardest workout she had ever done.
“I was 18 and the only thing I cared about was getting back to college,” Laura said. “Had I been told that today, my recovery might not have been the same. I was naïve to a lot of things. A lot of patients will come into our program who were told they will never walk again and they decide that they can’t and they never tried.”
It wasn’t that rehab was easy — it definitely was the hardest workout of her life but she attacked rehab with a tenacity and determination that her father called “unparalleled.”
He said that when the therapists left at the end of a session, Laura would stay and do it herself.
Laura sat up for the first time six days after the accident and was only in the hospital for 12 days before eventually learning to walk again at a rehab center in Allentown. She wore a halo for three months, followed by hard and soft collars.
A year after her accident she made it a point to walk on her own into that doctor’s office, just to prove to him he was wrong. She said that doctor has never again told a patient they won’t walk again.
Of her remarkable recovery, Laura said in a 1995 article: “I guess I’m a fighter and very stubborn.”
She might have inherited that stubbornness from her father.
Peter has been riding a bike since he was 5 years old. This journey across country isn’t his first exercise in the extreme— he and his sons did a rugged hike through the Appalachians and he’s done the same cross country trip he is doing now 10 years ago.
That knowledge of what it will be like is helpful but he also knows exactly how hard it will be.
“This side is terrible,” Karch said of the first part of the journey. “The first three to four days are a shock to the system.”
Starting out riding south out of Santa Barbara it’s a steady climb to sea level and then it’s the Mohave Desert.
Across Nevada the weather can be “a killer,” he said. Karch added that at the time of his last ride it was 110 degrees every day. It drops to the high ‘90s in mid-Kansas but then the humidity goes up “something terrible.” He left two weeks earlier this time to lessen the heat possibility.
He fears snakes because if he is bitten he will be far away from a hospital and he also is a little leery of people, being out there all alone.
He aims to average about 70 to 90 miles a day, rising early at 3:30 a.m. to be on the road by 5 a.m. He is confident that he will beat his time and has stayed in shape by walking three miles a day and swimming in addition to cycling.
“I’m a biologist and I’ve taught biology all my life and one thing I always told my students is that we’re all a unique set of genes and no one will ever be you,” Karch said. “I want to do something different that no one’s done before, just to say that I’m me.
“I believe that if you want to enjoy the pinnacles of life, you have to resist traveling the routes of least resistance. Resist taking the easy route. There’s fantastic things out there, you have to be able to let yourself do them,” Karch said. “As you get older, do things that are a little harder and there’s some pleasure in that.”
As with any endurance activity, finding the motivation to keep moving forward becomes a challenge.
“When I’m on the road and it’s 100 degrees out and it’s an 8 percent incline with 70 pounds of baggage, you ask yourself why. There’s 1,000 reasons not to do it and one reason to do it,” Karch said. I can’t tell you how much the syncopation and the cadence of the pedaling, the stripes on the road, give you a rhythm that helps you maintain. It’s hard but you tell yourself, ‘just give me 50 more strokes.’ And I think of Laura too. I’ve always told her she’s my idol.”
Laura had aimed to be a professional tennis player but when she realized it wouldn’t be a reality after her accident, she had designs on opening a destination tennis club and spa. She moved out to California in 2001 and began working at a day spa.
One day a man came in who was in a wheelchair. Up until that point, Laura did not identify herself as a person with a spinal cord injury but after speaking to the man, she couldn’t sleep that night and realized that she needed to be working with that population.
She started Awakenings as a nonprofit in 2003 and began working with people in their homes in 2004. In 2005, she opened the doors to Awakenings, a destination club of sorts.
Thanks to a grant from Home Depot, the Solana Beach location is about to get a complete overhaul in June.
“Our success rate with spinal cord injuries has been phenomenal here,” Laura said. “We’re able to help them get rid of all or most of their caregiving costs.”
For Laura there’s no greater feeling than when she sees a client who was unable to walk when they came in be able to walk out without a wheelchair.
“They can return to their lives again but they still have to work on it. It’s hard work to do this,” Laura said. “Taking the first step is not the end of rehab, it actually means rehab is going to become a lot more intense and they have many, many years ahead of them.”
Even a two-week vacation could set patients back.
“The walking stories are major successes but we get ones that are not as tangible as walking or living completely independent,” said Laura.
She told of one client who came in suicidal and depressed and wouldn’t even look at herself in a mirror after a traumatic car accident. She was with Awakenings for six years and has turned her life around, is now married and able to lead a happy life. Laura said the impact of results like that cannot be measured.
Like her clients, Laura’s recovery is ongoing and she knows she has to keep herself moving, even on days when she feels weak.
She still does not feel most sensations in her body and will have the occasional problem with gait, but she doesn’t let it stop her from running Awakenings, walking, swimming and doing yoga.
She is also four-and-a-half months pregnant.
Laura admits she used to feel a lot of guilt that she was able to get up and walk away from what happened to her.
“I got so wrapped up in it and everybody I saw I had to help them, I never slept and I ran myself ragged trying to save the world,” Laura said. “I realized I can’t save the world. I got comfortable with that fact, as long as I’m making something good out of [her recovery].”
Somewhere in the middle of the country is a man alone on a cycle, thinking of her with each push of the peddle; thinking as much about her journey as the one that lies ahead of him.
“I’m so proud of her,” Karch said.
To donate to Awakenings Health Institute, visit