PORT McNEILL—His participation in this week’s Tour de Victoria cycling event does not qualify him as a marvel of modern science. But Ron Mollinga believes that if he hadn’t taken up cycling for his personal well-being, he may never have beat the epileptic seizures that plagued him for nearly three decades.
Prevented from driving a motor vehicle by his condition, which first struck when he was 22, Mollinga, a 51-year-old teacher at Sunset Elementary School, first took up bike-riding after ballooning from his usual 150 pounds or so to 185 pounds almost a decade ago.
“The doctor said my BMI (body-mass index) was getting up there,” said Mollinga. “In my mind, I took that as, ‘You’re saying I’m getting fat.’”
So, presented a used mountain bike by his father-in-law, Mollinga began riding the short jaunt from his home to Sunset, which he used to walk. Soon, those rides extended to tours around Port McNeill’s streets and up and down its hills as he noticed he was losing weight and feeling better with himself.
But those rides made the leap from therapeutic to “training” when his doctors said they might have identified a procedure to eliminate once and for all the seizures.
“I was excited when the doctors said surgery was a possibility to cure me,” said Mollinga, who will take part with more than 1,000 other riders Sunday in the 100-kilometre section of the Ryder Hejesdal Tour de Victoria, his first major cycling event. “And I knew the healthier I was, the better chance I had of coming through the operation.”
So Mollinga, a teacher at Sunset Elementary School, stepped up his riding, getting a newer, faster road cycle and cranking up his riding to be in the best possible physical condition for what can only be described as brain surgery, which was undertaken in two stages over an 11-day period in January of 2012.
Following an alphabet soup of tests over several years — MRI, CAT scan, WATA test — doctors identified as many as three “vascular malformations” on the surface of Mollinga’s brain that most likely were causing his seizures.
His affliction was not the dramatic, full-body, grand mal seizure, but rather petit mal seizures, debilitating in their own way as they left him conscious but unable to function normally in front of his classroom, while performing as a musician — his avocation outside of teaching — or on his mountain bike, on which he suffered several crashes.
In January of 2012, he took leave from his job and went in for the procedure, which involved removal of his skull in two sections and the implanting of electrodes directly into his brain as doctors monitored Mollinga for nearly two weeks.
“In the 11 days I was in the hospital under observation, they recorded 150 seizures,” he said.
Following the tests, two of the malformations were removed and blood vessels reattached. After 14 days in hospital, Mollinga was released and has been seizure-free since.
“I left the hospital on Lesa’s 50th birthday,” he said of his wife, an administrative assistant with Vancouver Island Health Authority.
“That was the best birthday present anyone could get,” Lesa said. “And every day with no seizures was like another victory. After one month, it was like, yahoo! Then there was another month, and another month.”
And as the seizure-free months piled up, an interesting thing happened to Ron. He was awarded a driver’s license he had not been able to use since he was 22, but what he most wanted to do was ride his bike. Ride it farther. Ride it faster. And along the way, he became a staunch advocate for cycling.
He got new gear. He moved from riding the streets of Port McNeill to Highway 19. His rides now may take him to Port Alice, Port Hardy, Beaver Cove. Hundreds of kilometres a week, in fact.
He even made a believer of Lesa, who has since got a Metro cycle — sort of a cross between a road cycle and a mountain bike — and who often joins Ron on his long rides on Hwy. 19.
“I saw how physically fit he was and how good he felt,” said Lesa. “And now I find my muscle tone is better, my cardio is better, and I’m losing weight. Overall, my health is better and I have less stress.”
That’s music to Ron’s ears. He makes a point of noting this weekend’s ride in Victoria is not a race, but a “ride”. And, while he likes the speed and competitiveness of cycling, he would just like to see as many people as possible take advantage of its benefits.
“I’m 51 years old, and I’m in better shape than I was when I was 20,” he said. “Anybody can do this, and anybody can benefit from it.”
After all, it’s just cycling. It’s not brain surgery.