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Riders Inspire Hope at Third Dolphins Cycling Challenge

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    UM orthopaedic surgeon David Pitcher crosses the finish line on Sunday, November 4 at Sun Life Stadium, completing a 30-mile ride from Ft. Lauderdale while towing his patient, 17-year-old Lazaro Cordero, who lost a leg to bone cancer.

    With the massive walls of Sun Life Stadium casting a cooling shadow over them, J. David Pitcher Jr. and Lazaro Cordero grew jubilant with every turn of their bike pedals. Their 30-mile trek from Fort Lauderdale to Miami was over, and as they raced into the stadium down a welcoming path lined with cheering spectators, the two couldn’t help raising their arms triumphantly, joyous smiles adorning their sweat-covered faces.

    Hundreds of riders preceded them at the finish, but among the many who completed the last two stages of this year’s Dolphins Cycling Challenge on Sunday, this pair was unique. Pitcher, associate professor of orthopaedics at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, completed the journey on a recumbent bicycle—towing Cordero, his 17-year-old patient who lost a leg to osteosarcoma, the entire way.

    The Dolphins Cycling Challenge included a kids ride on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.

    “It was great to be a part of this,” Cordero, a junior at South Dade High School, said of the third Dolphins Cycling Challenge (DCC), a two-day event covering 170 miles that raises funds for Sylvester’s lifesaving research and treatment programs. “It was a long, tough ride, but Dr. Pitcher made it easy, telling a lot of jokes to keep up my spirit.”

    Spanning three counties and featuring rides of different lengths, the cycling challenge was started in honor of former Miami Dolphins tight end Jim “Mad Dog” Mandich, who was treated at Sylvester for bile duct cancer before succumbing to the disease in April 2011 at the age of 62.

    More than 2,000 participants, many of them riding in memory of a loved one affected by cancer, took to the road or were virtual riders in this year’s event, which hopes to raise more than $2 million. Fundraising efforts have already reached $1 million, and donations are still ongoing through November 18. With almost 500 UM employees and students taking part as either physical or virtual riders, Team Sylvester and Team UM have already accounted for more than $320,000 of that total.

    In the early-morning darkness of a cool morning that eventually gave way to clear skies and warm temperatures, the event began on November 3 as hundreds of riders set out from Sun Life Stadium. Some were geared to complete a 30-mile journey to Miami Beach; others continued on for a 100-mile ride to West Palm Beach, where they would spend the night before heading back.

    Members of the TriCanes, a UM student-run team that competes in triathlons, pose with Sebastian the Ibis after their 70-mile ride from West Palm Beach to Miami.

    Sunday was the climactic event for riders returning from West Palm and those completing a 30-mile trek from Fort Lauderdale. The first group came into Sun Life Stadium just after noon, a wave of supporters cheering the riders on as their entrance was displayed on the stadium’s jumbo screen. The Miami Dolphins were on the road against the Indianapolis Colt on this Sunday.

    Members of the Tri-Canes, a UM team of students who compete in triathlons, were among the first group of riders to finish, completing the 70-mile West Palm Beach-to-Miami journey at a brisk 20-mile-per-hour pace. Each rode for a family member or friend who had either passed away from or is undergoing treatment for some form of cancer. John Labriola 22, a meteorology and math major from New Jersey, rode for his aunt Jennifer, who died from complications of cancer last August.

    Twenty-three-year-old Luis Cardona rode for his late grandfather Pacho, who had prostate cancer, as well as his uncle Jesus, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer. “Cancer runs in my family, so riding in the challenge was important to me,” said Cardona, who graduates in May but plans to return for next year’s DCC.

    Maggie Ricciuti, 19, rode for the aunt whose ovarian cancer is now one year in remission, and finance major Monte Eiseman, 20, rode for his grandparents, both of whom he lost to cancer.

    Sebastian encourages a rider at the finish line.

    For the second year in a row, the Sunday finale was held in conjunction with Sylvester’s Cancer Survivors Day event, a gathering of people from all walks of life who have defeated cancer with the help of Sylvester physicians. Some wore pink, the color of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Others wore white T-shirts with the word “Survivor” printed on the back. They sat at tables with husbands, wives, sons, and daughters, taking in the festivities and then rising from their seats to welcome and cheer riders arriving at the stadium.

    “The money raised will help others as well as help find a cure for cancer,” UM President Donna E. Shalala told them.

    Jayne Sylvester Malfitano, vice chair of Sylvester’s Board of Governors, whose father, Harcourt Sylvester Jr., first pledged $27.5 million to UM to build a cancer center, also addressed survivors.

    Among the survivors was Joan Scheiner, chair of Sylvester’s Board of Governors. A 16-year survivor of leiomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue, Scheiner sat at a table on Sunday with her husband, J. David Scheiner, and recounted the day when she received her cancer diagnosis.

    “I felt like my world had stopped and was spinning out of control,” said the 61-year-old mother of two adult sons and two granddaughters. “But from the very beginning, I knew that I was going to make it if I found the right doctors.”

    The Miller School’s Pasquale Benedetto, professor of medicine, became her oncologist. “I put my trust and faith in him,” Scheiner said. She underwent chemotherapy and endured several surgeries, and today is cancer free.

    “Our partnership with the Dolphins has created not only funds but enormous awareness of the world-class cancer center we have right here in Miami,” Scheiner said. “And when you’re sick, there’s no place like home.”

    When it was time for the first group of riders to arrive, Scheiner got up from her table, walking toward the front of the stadium tunnel, as she has done every year, to welcome the riders. “I never thought I’d see my kids grow to be men,” she said. “In most other places, being just a doctor would be enough. But at Sylvester, their commitment runs deep. It’s a true partnership.”

    Sitting only a few tables from Scheiner was Annie Anderson, a kindergarten teacher in the Miami-Dade Public Schools system, who underwent two surgeries after being diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. Eating cupcakes topped with pink icing, Anderson and her daughters, Adrienne and Rashauna, watched from afar as riders continued to enter the stadium. It was important for them to be there. “We wanted to celebrate our mom’s recovery in hopes that someday there’ll be a cure,” said Adrienne.

    Among the Team Sylvester riders: Miller School of Medicine Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt and Stephen D. Nimer, the new director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

    “We couldn’t be prouder of the team effort that went into this year’s Dolphins Cycling Challenge,” said Goldschmidt. “From the survivors who participated to those who rode for loved ones, it was a big success in supporting cancer research at Sylvester. It’s this commitment that propels our work to save more lives. I’m sure that this South Florida tradition will continue for years to come.”

    Said Nimer, “This year’s Dolphins Cycling Challenge was a tremendous success. Sylvester has set an aggressive agenda that will allow us to develop and expand our clinical programs and recruit more outstanding physicians and scientists devoted to research. This is all possible because of the DCC.”

    UM Trustee Stuart A. Miller and Joe Natoli, senior vice president for business and finance and chief financial officer, rode for Team UM.

    Natoli, who so far has raised $70,000 for the DCC, completed all 170 miles of the event, training three days a week. “The DCC has the potential to be a tremendously important event for Sylvester and for cancer care in South Florida,” said Natoli. “The University has great scientists and facilities and a terrific new leader in Stephen Nimer. The DCC, over time, will provide much-needed resources to help Sylvester become one of the most outstanding cancer centers in the country, and the beneficiaries of that excellence will be our families, friends, and visitors to South Florida.”

    Lesley Klein, a registered dietitian at Sylvester-Deerfield Beach, rode for “all my patients.” She took up cycling only six weeks ago just to ride in the challenge. One of her patients, Anthony Jewell, a survivor of esophageal cancer, greeted her at the finish line.

    Laura Freedman, the director of radiation oncology at Sylvester-Deerfield, later joined them. She rode in Sunday’s 30-mile leg, borrowing a friend’s bike and practicing “just a bit” to prepare. “Cycling is not my sport, but I got out there to ride because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

    Then it was Pitcher and Cordero’s turn to enter the stadium. “Lazaro is like any other of my patients who’s got friends and family supporting him, and I just wanted to be one of his supporters,” said Pitcher. “He’s a young man with a bright future and all the world ahead of him.”

    Cordero will soon receive his prosthetic leg and plans to return for the 2013 DCC—riding his own bicycle.



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