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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : The Inside Track : Wheelchair Patients Take Their Laps in Antelope Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sturdy tires turned furiously. The racers bore down as they approached each turn, trying to edge ahead of their rivals. The onlookers cheered for their favorites.

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But the Indianapolis 500 this most certainly was not.

The “track” was a paper oval fixed to the floor inside the Antelope Valley Convalescent Hospital. And the competing vehicles were chrome wheelchairs propelled only by elbow grease and foot power--no motors allowed.

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At the nursing home’s second annual Wheel-A-Thon, endurance--not speed--was the key to winning. The trophy was reserved for the resident who completed the most laps around the track, no matter how long it took.

During Thursday morning’s race, there were no flying tires or fiery crashes. The most serious calamity occurred when some of the wheelchairs literally tore up the paper track.

“I think it’s silly nonsense,” said Dorothy Kemper, who completed 26 laps and said she was more than 80 years old. “But it was fun.”

Luella Stover, 88, pointed out that even older residents enjoy healthy competition. “We’re getting to be like children here,” she said.

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Almost two dozen nursing home residents competed. Most are coping with serious medical ailments and need a wheelchair to get around.

The winner, Stephen Getchel, 66, had only the use of one hand and one foot to propel himself around the track 42 times.

In second place, with 41 laps, was Margaret Laggren, 69, who is recovering from a stroke. “I pushed my chair and used my feet a little,” she said. “It was a happy event. I want to feel happy and positive--that’s my goal!”

For the nursing home staff, the goal was to give residents an uplifting break from their daily routine. The rules were simple: no running into other wheelchairs and no foul language.

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“We try to think of things to make the residents’ stay here a little nicer,” said Donna Carey, the activities coordinator who devised the race last year. “We try to give them a reason for getting up in the morning and getting involved with their peers.”

To liven up the event, Al Beattie, owner of a Palmdale muffler shop, donated the winner’s trophy and bright yellow caps for the racers and spectators to wear.

Beattie said he was astonished by the tenacity of the racers, including last year’s winner, Helen Jones, 94, who finished 26 laps this year.

“They don’t want to quit! They won’t give up,” Beattie said. “That says something about the human spirit.”

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Leah Arujo, an activities staff member, said the race gives residents “a boost in morale. They enjoy the competition.”

Indeed, even though speed was not important, many racers wheeled faster to veer past other participants. Whenever weary racers reluctantly took a break from the track, staff members and volunteers handed them cool cups of Gatorade.

One racer, Vickie Maris, 65, said special events like this play a particularly vital role for residents who have few hobbies and receive few visitors. “It’s important to keep them from vegetating,” she said.

Max Baron, who will turn 88 next month and finished six laps, agreed. “It’s very good recreation,” he said. “It’s better than sleeping in a bed. You talk to people and say, ‘Good morning,’ instead of looking at the walls. It’s beautiful!”

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