Following a spinal stroke which left him paralyzed, Brian Muscarella knew his life was changed forever. Flanked by an army of loving supporters, he began the long, difficult journey of rehabilitation with the hope of establishing a new normal in his life. In doing so, he found a second home at Carolinas Rehabilitation, joining the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program (ASAP) and participating in a support group for spinal stroke survivors. “One cannot underestimate the value of mentorship from participating in ASAP,” says Brian. “I’ve learned volumes from the kindness of my peers and there is a sense of comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who has gone through the hardship of adjusting to life with a disability.” Here, Brian recounts his journey, offers wisdom for others facing similar hardships, and honors those who have impacted him along the way:

Atrium Health Foundation: How have Carolinas Rehabilitation and the Cycle to the Sea event changed your life?

Brian Muscarella: I did not foresee how much Cycle to the Sea (CTTS) would impact my life. I take great pride in the success of the ride each year with finishing and meeting our fundraising goals – the sense of accomplishment is like no other. Each year, I have expanded the team that rides with me and raises funds to continue our valuable community programs. The ride has motivated me to be a tireless advocate for what we do at ASAP! I also value the relationships that I have established with the therapists at Carolinas Rehabilitation (CR) that were so crucial in the initial years of my disability. They take great pride in my successes in living life with a disability because they know that I will never give up or surrender to it.

AHF: Who has been the most impactful to you on your journey?

BM: From day one of my disabled journey, my family and dear friends have been at my side to provide whatever I needed to aid in my recovery. My wife Carol and daughters Leigh and Laura have endured what no family should have to go through. They provide the foundation for my strength and focus. My dad, five brothers and sisters, and in-laws have always been there with encouragement and support, too. My support group of friends from high school, Villanova University, and my business associates and neighbors have humbled me with their kindness and selflessness. So many have supported my CTTS rides and a number of them have picked up cycling to ride with me! My care team has also been very supportive of me, from Dr. Lofton – who recognized that the typical care plan for Spinal Cord Injury patients wasn’t going to work for me and took the time to design a care plan that would motivate me – to Jennifer Moore at ASAP who showed up at one of my physical therapy sessions with a hand-cycle because she saw the value and purpose it would bring to a patient.

AHF: Team Freak, the team you ride with during Cycle to the Sea, has truly become a part of your life. How do you think this fundraising has shaped you personally and your physical journey? What lessons would you hope to impart on others facing serious injury or physical disability?

BM: This whole experience has opened my eyes to a world that I barely knew existed. I see the tremendous value that programs like ASAP bring to our disabled community. I also see the glaring need to reach out to those who do not have the support systems that are so vital every day to my recovery. In a way, I’m fortunate that this happened at the stage of my life when the lessons and discipline I’ve learned could be used to help others. By sharing my experiences, I hope to raise awareness of the capabilities of the disabled. It gives me a sense of pride that my team has raised over $240,000 for ASAP over the last six years. This may seem like a healthy sum, but I know that it pales in comparison to what is necessary to reach those in need and expand our programs. I firmly believe that we can make a difference and be the difference in so many lives. It is my passion and, at the same time, my salvation.

AHF: What is the most touching moment you have witnessed during a Cycle to the Sea ride?

BM: It is always the final mile of the ride. When we turn the corner and see the gauntlet of family and friends cheering us on, it humbles me and chokes me up every time.

AHF: Which three adjectives would you use to describe the benefits provided by the ASAP program to other disabled individuals?

BM: Camaraderie from being with your peers, wellness from leading an active lifestyle, and pride from accomplishment.

AHF: What final thoughts would you like to share?

BM: By sharing my journey, I hope that others will see and understand that with the right attitude all is possible. There will be hardships and it will not be easy, but it will be worth every minute of the independence you experience. One thing I have learned in my journey is that the only barriers I face in this life are the ones I place on myself.

Today, Brian is not only an active ASAP participant and advocate, but he is also an example of courage for others facing their disabilities with a sense of defiance and a desire to find new beauty in a changed life. Brian has been recognized nationally as an advocate for the disabled, receiving accolades from his alma maters, St. John Vianney High School and Villanova University. He was also awarded the Father William Atkinson Humanitarian Award for his work with the disabled in the community and was the honored guest at the NC Spinal Cord Injury Association banquet. When he is not representing a cause, he is training and maintaining his healthy lifestyle. Brian completed the NYC Marathon in a handcycle – twenty years from the date he first ran it – and stays active with quad rugby, hand cycling, and water skiing.

Cycle to the Sea will take place from April 25-27, 2019. Cyclists will travel from Charlotte, NC to North Myrtle Beach, SC in a three-day ride to benefit Carolinas Rehabilitation and the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program.