May 1, 2011, was a watershed moment for Patricia Crebase ’93. Watching a friend run the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia, she paid extra attention to the wheelchair athletes. Due to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1995 that had progressed aggressively, Crebase had used a wheelchair since 2001.
“The wheelchair racers were hard-core and amazing,” she says. “But most of them also looked like they were having fun. I said to myself, ‘You’ve talked about this. Are you going to do it, or aren’t you?’” She knew it was time to get in the game.
Crebase opted for a hand cycle, a three-wheeled bicycle that you pedal with your arms. Her first “exhilarating” trip was once around a parking lot, but it was the spark she needed.
“Now I had a bike,” she said. “It was like being a kid again and thinking, ‘Wow, I can go anywhere and do anything.’” At the time she wasn’t envisioning going 26.2 miles—the distance she completed this past November at the Philadelphia Marathon.
Creating a New Normal
Crebase, an anthropology major at F&M, was 25 and working in Philadelphia managing 401(k) plans when her MS symptoms started. “I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in years and jumped up to give him a hug. My left leg buckled. Then a little later the muscles in my face dropped.”
She went to her doctor and then a neurologist. “I was lucky I was diagnosed very quickly with MS,” she says. “Then not so lucky because mine progressed rapidly.” The symptoms of MS, a potentially debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system, vary by person and can include numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, and loss of mobility.
“Within five years I was in terrible shape,” she said. “I was so weak that wheeling myself was a challenge by the end of the day.” She also developed optic neuritis, resulting in partial vision loss.
On her 30th birthday, she went to a new neurologist who said: “You’re far too young for this to be the way it is.” He started her on chemotherapy, which was then a new course of treatment. “MS is an overactive immune system, and chemotherapy suppresses the immune system,” she says.
She took one dose every three months for four years and saw huge improvements. “It kept things under control and gave me enough time to start healing,” she said. “One theory is that if you can suppress the immune system long enough, it almost reboots. Since I started the chemotherapy, I have not had the major flare-ups I was having regularly.”
Slowly Crebase got stronger. A few years later she started using the corporate gym at Cigna, where she has worked in underwriting for the past 13 years. “I think of some of those first workouts and how awful they were when I did just five minutes of cardio,” she said.
But she persisted, and others took notice. “From before the time we actually became friends, I admired her strength and dedication as she worked out in the fitness center seemingly every day,” says Pat McCool, a fellow Cigna employee. “It was such a joy for me to watch her improvements; they were, and are, very apparent.”
In addition to cardio and weight training, she started practicing with a walker and eventually grew strong enough that she could walk a short distance while holding on to something. “The way MS progresses is slow and pernicious. Everything became the new normal, and I got used to it,” she says. “But I figured out my normal wasn’t what I wanted it to be.” As she became stronger, “it felt like the new normal was going in the right direction.”
Her new strength helped when Crebase took up the hand cycle. She started by leaving her Philadelphia apartment and “heading uphill on Broad Street, so it’s downhill on the way home.” While she slowly upped her distance, she had to be cautious: “If the bike breaks down, I can’t get off and walk home.”
As Crebase gained experience on her cycle, she got the chance to help others with disabilities. She did so when Melissa Wilcox, a fellow Cigna employee, asked her to help launch a Philadelphia chapter of Achilles International, a nonprofit that helps people with all types of disabilities participate in mainstream sports. Crebase, Wilcox and dozens of others meet each Saturday morning in Center City before heading to Fairmount Park on training runs.
Training with Achilles transformed Crebase’s confidence and her riding. “Having someone with you made such a difference,” she said. “It lets you push those boundaries because you have someone who is making sure you’re not going to get stuck.”
26.2 Miles or Bust
In 2013, Crebase signed up for the five-mile Hope and Possibilities Race, Achilles’ signature event in New York City. “It was emotionally overwhelming. In high school I played sports. But after dealing with MS for so long, I didn’t think I would ever be a part of something like this again,” she said. “I got a medal from it. Medals are the grown-up version of gold stars, and apparently I’ll do anything for one.”
She’s not kidding about the medals, Wilcox says. “My favorite thing about Patricia is how proud she is of her accomplishments—as she should be! When she won her first finisher medal, she wore it to work every day for a week. Maybe a month. And on Saturdays to Achilles. Any opportunity she got, to be honest. She probably slept in it too. And she has done the same thing with the several medals she’s been awarded since.”
After the race in New York, Wilcox coaxed Crebase into training for the Philadelphia Half Marathon. “I looked at training schedules and thought this seemed reasonable,” said Crebase. “But there are two awful hills in this race. I was afraid if I needed a break I’d roll all the way back down the hill.”
So Crebase and her Achilles teammates hatched a plan. A couple guides were spaced out along the course to run with her. If she needed a rest, someone would set a foot behind her wheel. The plan worked to perfection. She finished in just under two hours and proudly received another medal.
Coming into 2014, Crebase felt great. Without much training, she easily tackled the 15K Ouch! Race in Philadelphia in August. When Wilcox upped the ante by suggesting the Philadelphia Marathon, Crebase was ready.
“The toughest part was finding the time to put in all the miles during the week,” she said. When she rode 18 miles in “just horrible winds,” she knew the marathon was within reach.
Crebase credits MS with making her marathon-ready: “I think so much of a marathon is just gutting it out. As strange as this may sound, living with a chronic condition puts that in your head. Because sometimes you just have to gut it out, no matter if it’s not pretty or graceful.”
Her goal for the marathon was to finish—and she did so in style. Her time of 4:13:09 made her first in her class and third overall among hand cyclists.
Normally she puts her bike away for the winter, but she had one last goal of competing in the Disney Half Marathon in January. There she bettered her half-marathon time by a whopping 23 minutes. Proof, yet again, that Crebase’s new normal is trending in the right direction.
All in The Family
Patricia Crebase ’93 grew up with her three sisters in Connecticut as part of close-knit family. When she was first diagnosed with MS, it was no surprise her father, Philip, wanted her to move back to Connecticut. “They wanted to be involved, but I am really independent, so there really wasn’t anything they could do,” Crebase says.
Two of her sisters, her twin sister Pam and middle sister Karen, found another way. In 1999 they established Team PAT (Pedaling Against The disease), and started raising funds for the National MS Society by riding in the Connecticut Chapter’s Fourth Annual MS Sights & Sounds Bike Tour.
The pair recruited other family members, including their oldest sister, Cheryl, and their mother. As the nieces and nephews got old enough to do the shorter two-mile ride, they joined too. And so did Patricia in 2012.
“It is great for them knowing that the chemo I did when I was in crisis and the maintenance drugs we have now that didn’t exist when I was first diagnosed have come out of research that has been sponsored by the MS Society,” she said. “Their riding has had direct effect on me.”
To date, Team PAT has participated in every ride since 1999 and raised more than $100,000.