NEWINGTON, Conn. — A friend is more than a shoulder to lean on, or a crutch to help us stand. Friends can be motivators that ignite confidence and spark movement. In Tony Simoes’s case, it was a friend who inspired him to become active in his own battle against multiple sclerosis.
It all started with a tingling sensation in his legs. It was not overwhelming, so Simoes ignored the slight irritation. A week passed, and the feeling passed, too. Then, just a few months later, the feeling came back - only this time it was exacerbated. It engulfed his entire left side, from his arm down to his foot. Simoes also noticed a loss of strength on the other side, in his right foot. He knew it was time to consult a doctor. Just months away from his wedding day in 2002, Simoes was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“I shut down,” said Simoes, who resides inNewington with his wife, Christine. “I was in denial and didn’t want to think or worry about what it meant to have MS.”
Simoes spent the next eight years keeping his diagnosis private. To him, MS was a battle he would face on his own.
“In the beginning, I had the support I needed from my bride-to-be,” said Simoes, recalling Christine’s strong commitment amidst their wedding plans. “I wasn’t eager to share my diagnosis with anyone, but a few years ago, it got to the point where I could no longer conceal the battle I had been fighting internally for so long. My friends and coworkers started to notice something was different, and when I finally told them that I was living with MS, my circle of support expanded greatly.”
Simoes, who works as the head custodian in the Hartford school district, feels the burden of multiple sclerosis most during the summer months, when temperatures spike. One summer when he was working in a building without air conditioning, he became so worn down that he was put on IV steroids.
“The heat drains me,” said Simoes. “I need to take frequent breaks just to cool down my body.”
After years of keeping his diagnosis quiet, Simoes decided to share it with one of his closest friends, Henry Rodriguez.
The two had met while attending a mechanics class in high school, and quickly became friends. Even after Rodriguez enlisted with the United States Marines, the pair remained in contact. Nearly 20 years after graduating, the friends are still riding their motorcycles together, talking cars and every now and then going to the shooting range.
While the activities were the same, Rodriguez, now a police officer in Newington, noticed that Simoes was struggling on his motorcycle. He saw fatigue challenge his best friend. It was then that he decided that he needed to understand what Simoes was going through.
“I knew nothing about multiple sclerosis,” said Henry Rodriguez, now a resident of Bloomfield. “But I knew I had to help Tony any way I could.”
In order to stay healthy, Rodriguez, who still loves to ride his motorcycle, decided to give another set of wheels a chance. So, a few years ago, he picked up cycling. He then discovered a way he could pair his new passion for cycling with his determination to help Simoes.
“Sometimes you want to do things for your friends and family that you can’t,” said Rodriguez. “I wish I could be at his house everyday helping him, but because I can’t be there all of the time, I decided riding my bike was something that I could do.”
Last year, Rodriguez participated for the first time in the Bike MS: Cardio Express Ride, completing a 50-mile route. During the time leading up to his ride, he raised funds in the name of his best friend for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter.
“I wrote a short story about Tony and started to raise awareness on Facebook. I asked for any help that people were willing to give,” said Rodriguez. “It was amazing. I had donations coming in from all over the country – from complete strangers.”
Rodriguez, Captain of AntSims Expressway, a name inspired by Simoes, was able to raise $1,200 last year for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter. This year Rodriguez plans to ride the 50-mile route again and has set a goal of $2,500.
“Henry lit the fire,” said Simoes. “I never had the ‘oomph’ to get involved, but he motivated me and my family to do something.”
Since Rodriguez participated in the Bike MS: Cardio Express Ride last year, the Simoes family got together to raise money and formed a team for Walk MS this past April. Christine captained the team, Triple T – Tony the Tiger Team, and raised $1,700 in honor of her husband for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter.
“Henry really started to fight with Tony, and for Tony,” said Christine Simoes. “He got us all involved in the community and we were propelled by Henry’s excitement.”
This year marks the 18th anniversary of the Bike MS: Cardio Express Ride. In its history, more than 2,000 cyclists have pedaled over 200,000 miles to raise more than $1 million to support local chapter programs and services as well as scientific research to find a cure for multiple sclerosis. This year, the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter hopes to raise $110,000.
“Henry is such a supportive friend,” said Simoes. “He motivated me and inspired me to get involved.”
More than 6,000 Connecticut residents, like Simoes, are affected by multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease affecting the central nervous system. The cause is unknown and there is currently no cure for MS. Symptoms can include, among other things, numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, loss of mobility and, in some more severe cases, total paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted.
“I had no other means of spreading awareness other than getting involved,” said Rodriguez. “So that’s exactly what I did, I got involved for Tony.”
The Bike MS: Cardio Express Ride, presented by Cashman + Katz, will be held on Sunday, September 8, beginning at the historic Boathouse at Riverside Park, in Hartford. The city to country ride, which includes 75-, 50- and 25-mile routes, will travel across three bridges, the Founders Bridge, the Charter Oak Bridge and the Arrigoni Bridge.
Finish line festivities include a barbeque lunch, live band, local vendors offering product samples, free massage therapy and more.
Funds raised by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Connecticut Chapter, through events, such as Bike MS, ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure, as well as to provide vital programs and services offered by the chapter to those in the state living with multiple sclerosis. For more information on the 2013 Bike MS: Cardio Express Ride, presented by Cashman + Katz, or to donate, visit www.ctfightsMS.org.