Heart transplant survivor hurt on Appalachian Trail hike, vows to return
A knee injury abruptly ended heart transplant survivor Bill Spence's quest to hike the Appalachian Trail only three days into the journey, but he hopes to try again next year.
"Being out on that trail and seeing the things that I saw while I was out there, it just got under my skin," the Carpentersville man said. "I'm sitting here looking out the window and I'm like, 'I want to go back there, but I can't go.'"
Spence, 62, set off in late April and planned to take about six months to hike the trail's 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine. But on Day 3, his knee wobbled as he stepped off a bigger-than-expected rock.
He hobbled back down to the nearest parking lot, got a ride to a hostel and eventually boarded a bus back to Illinois.
Spence said he feels like's he's let down his followers -- and himself. "It's aggravating. It's frustrating."
A consolation is that he did inspire 17 people to register as organ donors via his page on Donate Life America. His goal was to prompt one registration for each mile he traveled.
"I'm really happy about (the 17 new donors). A few of them were hikers that I met along the way," he said. "That was a pleasant surprise -- that I actually affected somebody and made them decide, after hearing my story, to go in and register as a donor."
Spence will know in about three weeks if he'll need knee replacement surgery, which would take place at Loyola University Medical Center, where he got his new heart Jan. 1, 2014.
He's hoping to avoid the surgery, because that means he'll likely not be able to kneel, a crucial factor when camping. But no matter what happens, his goal is to get back to the Appalachian Trail, he said. "It will be an extreme amount of work, but I am not afraid of it."
Setting off on the hike already was a bold decision for a man who takes 37 pills a day and has to be mindful about spider bites and small cuts to avoid potentially deadly infection.
Spence took a do-it-yourself approach to the hike, to save money and make his 40-pound backpack as light as possible.
That impressed some of his fellow hikers, he said, such as two men from Georgia who were weighed down by all manner of equipment. The men were surprised to watch him heat water on his small stove made of soda cans and running on rubbing alcohol. "I was eating before they were," he said, chuckling.
As he focuses on getting better, he has indelible recollections of the journey, such as the view from the top of Springer Mountain at the start of his hike, he said.
"The pictures that you see that people post, the videos that you see online -- it absolutely cannot do it justice," he said. "That feeling that you get standing on top of that mountain and looking and seeing as far as your eyes can see -- it almost gets in your blood and under your skin."