By Dedra Cordle
It was his first day on the job as the memory care manager at Carriage Court of Grove City and JD Self could barely contain his nerves.
Despite the warm welcome he had received from his fellow coworkers at the senior care facility, what had his stomach tied into knots was the thought of how he might be received by his patients, most of whom can be wary of new faces on the team.
“Change can be really difficult for those who have memory issues,” he said. “All I wanted to do was to be able to assure them that while it may take some time for them to get to know me, that they would be safe in my care.”
His first few meet and greets went well, so much so that he started to gain confidence from the friendliness of those who reside at the facility. But as he turned a corner in the hallway, he was immediately stopped in his tracks by an 80-year-old man named Burleigh Coldiron.
Seated in a wheelchair with his glasses perched low on his nose, Coldiron locked eyes with the new member on his care team and told him exactly how the operations would be run there.
“He said that while he is open to listening to me as I provided care for him, it was important for me to recognize that he was the one in charge,” recalled Self with a laugh.
The new memory care manager said after that experience, he started to feel completely at home there.
“It’s not often you get told the business of the place by a patient, but I appreciated his candor and his willingness to be open to me,” said Self.
Over the course of the next few days, the caregiver and his boss-patient began to talk about their lives and bonded over their mutual interest in motorcycles.
“Burleigh could talk for hours about motorcycles,” said Self. “He would tell me about the places he visited while on his bike, he would tell me about his experiences working on the towing crew (at Mid-Ohio) and he would share in the locations he wished he had been able to visit when he could still ride.”
Self said he could always tell when Burleigh was in a good mood because he would be chatting away about life on a motorcycle to anyone who would listen. But then one day, he didn’t want to talk about the bike at all, or anything else for that matter.
“He became pretty withdrawn from all of us, unwilling to engage in much dialogue,” said Self.
During a patient care meeting with the staff at partner agency Suncrest Hospice, JD brought up the change in behavior with the health care professionals on his team and asked if they noticed a difference in his behavior.
They said that they did.
“Burleigh has always been someone who is full of light but we could start to see the depression setting in,” said Deb Wallace, a nurse at Suncrest Hospice.
She explained that it is not uncommon for patients who are in end-of-life care to experience depression but she added that it is their job to try to work with them as quickly and diligently as possible to help them through this period.
“Things can go downhill very quickly for patients in hospice and experiencing that much sadness and malaise can make a problem even worse,” said Wallace.
She said one way the care staff at the partner agencies try to combat the onset of depression is by creating personalized activities and experiences for their patients in order to bring a bit of joy to their lives.
“It could be something like planning for an upcoming wedding for a relative, or bringing in new furniture for those who just would like to sit on their front porch,” said Wallace.
“Whatever it is, we try to figure out what we can do to fulfill their needs and wishes and try to make it happen to give them that quality of life that they feel might be missing at the time.”
During a past meeting with the care team at the partner agencies, Burleigh mentioned that what could bring him joy was to be able to ride on a motorcycle again. Although the staff knew it might be a challenging undertaking – “I don’t think we have ever done something like this before,” admitted Wallace – they knew that they needed to try everything in their power to get Burleigh up on a bike once more.
“I really didn’t think that they would go for my idea at first,” said Self, “but the team was supportive and his daughter Regina (Mayeres) and former daughter-in-law Denise (Blatz) were all for it so I got to work to put it together for our friend.”
Knowing that he would need a sidecar for Burleigh, JD reached out to friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Jaime McDaniel to see if she had one tucked away in her garage. She said she did not but she quickly called her husband, Sam, and told him to find one right away.
“I said that I had gotten us in something and that he needed to move fast,” she laughed.
McDaniel said she was moved by the mission to get Burleigh back on the bike for a final ride and spread the word on social media to invite local crews to join in on a ride to help a man whom they had never met.
“It was just so touching to all of us and we knew that we had to be part of it,” she said.
The event was originally scheduled for July 2 but was pushed back to the following week due to inclement weather. Self said that all Burleigh could talk about those two weeks was getting on that bike.
“That spark was back and all he could focus on was the upcoming ride,” he said.
On July 9, Burleigh and his care team gathered outside of the entrance at Carriage Court to await his ride, an orange Harley Davidson driven by Sam McDaniel. Perched at the edge of his wheelchair, Burleigh heard the familiar sound of a bike making its way down the drive.
He leaned back, buried his head in his hands, and started crying.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
Surrounded by more than 50 riders, they quickly changed his shirt to be more fitting of the occasion – “you need to ride with Harley Davidson on your chest,” said one biker – and a group of men carefully picked the 80-year-old up, placed him in the sidecar, strapped on a helmet and shades and drove him out of town.
For more than an hour, the new crew rode across the city and made a stop at Tavern 62 to enjoy food and drinks and stories with Burleigh. He said afterward that although he was tired from the adventure, he wanted the day to last forever.
“I thought I might die in that sidecar,” said Burleigh, “but it was the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”
During a moment of reflection after the fun run and the pizza party was over, Burleigh said what he enjoyed the most about the event was the memories it elicited from the six decades he spent riding on a motorcycle.
“I had always loved the freedom being on the bike gave me,” he said, “and this allowed me to feel free once again.”
Denise Blatz, his former daughter-in-law that he is still close to, said watching him be able to have this experience is something she will keep in her mind and heart forever.
“I always thought Burleigh would go out in a blaze of glory so this past year where he has had a real decline in his physical and mental health has just been really tough to watch,” she said, referring to a fall that resulted in a brain injury, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease shortly thereafter, and the death of Margaret Coldiron, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 60 years.
“He has had so much happen to him in such a short amount of time and sometimes it is hard for him to want to stay present and aware of what is going on,” she said. “But I tell you what: there was an awareness to him today that I have not seen since early last year. I really hope that he is able to carry this memory on and that it inspires him to remember to live for all of the things he still wants out of life.”
For instance, Burleigh said he wants to be able to go to a local car show and now he even wants to schedule another ride with his new crew.
“I want to feel the wind in my hair again – or what is left of it,” he said.