After lying in bed with a head cold and sinus infection for a week, Heather Ogden, bored and restless, got an idea.
“I thought, ‘We need to get some wheelchairs to people down in developing countries,’” Ogden said.
What better way to raise funds and awareness, she thought, than to take a 1,000-mile family bike trip along the West Coast?
One evening she announced her big plan to her family — including her bewildered husband.
They stared back at her for a moment.
“You should, like, talk to your husband first,” Nathan Ogden later joked.
But Nathan Ogden and the kids — ages 17, 16, 12 and 10 — quickly got on board.
The family starts their trek July 10 in Bend, Oregon, and will ride to Los Angeles in 10 to 12 days. They’ll tackle the 1,200 miles relay-style, taking turns on different legs of the journey.
Nathan Ogden’s bike will be hand-powered. It’s his story that makes the need for wheelchairs such a meaningful issue for the family.
Three days before Christmas in 2001, Nathan Ogden, 26 at the time, was skiing at Mt. Bachelor in Bend while Heather Ogden shopped with her sister. The Ogdens had two children under the age of 3.
Nathan Ogden hit a jump wrong on the ski hill, was shot an estimated 25 feet into the air, and landed on his neck, shattering his seventh cervical vertebra.
“My brother-in-law, he actually had to drive to the store and come find us because we didn’t have cellphones,” Heather said. “He just said that Nate had injured his back really bad, and I needed to go to the hospital. I knew right then, that feeling like, ‘OK this, it’s not going to be an easy fix.’”
Nathan was paralyzed, but he and Heather were confident that he would walk again. He made hopeful progress over the next several months and regained the use of his upper body through intense rehabilitation. He even went back to work at a shipping company in Boise, driving a Ford truck customized for his condition.
“It was working,” Nathan said. “We were starting to kind of get a new life back together, or at least our goals were coming back into view.”
But just 13 months after the accident, Nathan was dropped from a gurney at the hospital while getting X-rays. His neck broke again in a different place, this time causing more damage and paralysis than before.
The Ogdens won a malpractice lawsuit against St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in 2005, awarded $5.7 million by a jury. But the Ogdens said the judge did not rule on that amount, and they ended up settling for a lower, undisclosed amount.
The couple said they harbor no bad feelings toward the hospital or the X-ray technician.
“It was an accident,” Nathan said. “We still go there.”
But Nathan’s loss of mobility from his second neck break was more severe than the first.
“I lost my hands, I lost my triceps in the back of my arms, I lost everything from the chest down. None of that was coming back,” he said. “That’s when it started hitting me.”
Nathan’s former dreams and goals became sources of despair.
“I want to take my kids camping. I want to hike them up in the mountains like my dad and me, and, you know, fishing and hunting and sports and all these things,” he said. “And all of a sudden I’m like, I can’t do that. Or I can do it, but it’s going to be so different from the way I wanted to do it.”
He and Heather had two more children after the accident in the hospital. Heather said she went into “rock mode” — doing what she needed to do to take care of her family without letting emotions get in the way.
Nathan saw her mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, and he sank deeper into self-doubt and frustration.
“I’m sure there was a lot of, ‘What good am I?’” Nathan said. “You know, ‘How good of a husband can I really be? How good of a father am I? I mean, I’m going to things, but do my kids really care? They need a dad who can go out and chase them around. My wife needs a husband who can do more than I can do.’”
Heather said in her determination to be strong for the family, she wasn’t giving Nathan the emotional connection he needed.
“We just slowly started pulling apart,” Nathan said.
Heather wasn’t getting what she needed either, she said, which was for Nathan to show her that he was still motivated to make progress.
“During that time, we didn’t work as well together as a team,” she said. “Nate was really suffering with depression and really suffering with just trying to figure out what he wanted to be and who he wanted to be.”
Nathan tried to write motivational speeches, but he would sit in his office for hours and get nothing done. His children would comment on how he never laughed during funny movies or cried.
One step toward recovery was getting off a pain medication that Nathan said was dulling his emotions. Though that meant he’d be in more pain from the nerve damage, at least he would feel more alive, Nathan said. When the medication wore off, he started to feel like himself again. He’d laugh deeply and cry at the slightest things.
Heather teases him, “He was always like, ‘This is so stupid, why am I crying?’”
Though life looks different from what they expected, the couple has found new ways to support each other and pursue adventure. They went sky-diving together and took their children on a trip to St. George, Utah, to rappel 150 feet off a cliff. The family moved to Virginia for a year in 2015-16 just to try out a new place.
The 1,200-mile bike trip this summer is their next big experiment. Someday, Nathan wants to dive with great white sharks — though Heather still needs some convincing.
“We’ve had our hard times. And that’s not to say that it’s always easy even now, but we’ve been able to figure out that we’re good together,” Nathan said. “We love each other, we’ve got an amazing family, and we don’t want to ruin any of that.”
The goal throughout all of their experiences, the couple said, is to help others. They now have a window into what it’s like to be depressed or anxious or in a rocky marriage, Heather said.
“We can help others who have been through that,” she said. “And I’m not saying we’re going to fix it, but we can be compassionate to it.
“We are grateful that God has given us kind of that greater understanding of, we’re just all here to help each other and to pull each other up and get rid of the judgments.”
‘EPIC’ BIKE TRIP
The Ogdens are not a family of seasoned cyclists. In fact, they only own three bikes between the six of them.
“Right now we’re so out of our comfort zone,” Heather said.
“We have no clue what we’re doing,” Nathan added.
They do, however, have three main purposes for the trip:
1. Raise money for wheelchairs. The family secured a partnership this week with the Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit that delivers wheelchairs to children and adults in need around the world. The Ogdens’ goal is to raise at least $100,000, and they plan to be part of the wheelchair delivery trip, whenever and wherever that might be.
2. Have an “awesome, epic family adventure” that they’ll never forget, Nathan said.
3. Show people that they can do hard things. “Your dream should be something that you have to stretch for,” Nathan said. “There should be unknown, there should be fear, there should be so much excitement when you reach it.”
The Ogdens are looking for sponsors to support their journey. They estimate that the bike trip and the trip overseas to help deliver wheelchairs will cost the family $55,000. That includes funding for a film crew who will make a documentary of the bike journey.
The family prays each night for the individuals who will receive the wheelchairs, Heather said. She taped photos of children who need wheelchairs to her stationary bike to remind her to push through, even when her body hurts from training or she feels stressed from planning the logistics.
“I just feel so connected with these kids and these people now,” she said.
Nathan wrote about his experiences and life lessons in his book, “Unfrozen,” and he’s delivered motivational talks across the country.
He remembers one youth event in particular when an attractive girl who had been surrounded by boys approached him.
Nathan said he assumed she had everything going for her. But she surprised him. That night was going to be her last, she told him, before she took her own life. But something he said inspired her to keep fighting.
“Sometimes you wonder if you’re making a difference, if it matters,” Nathan said. “And it may not have to most of the people in there. But something I said, I don’t know what it was — and maybe it was nothing I said, it was just the way she felt — made a difference.”
Nathan and Heather have heard similar feedback from other people over the years, about how the family’s story and outlook on life gave them hope to keep going.
Nathan said his children are an inspiration in the way they treat others and take care of him.
“You can see on our YouTube page my son packing me out of the subway in New York City because the elevator broke, and he’s piggybacking me up the stairs,” he said. “Just different things like that where, them doing it is now motivating others. And because they’re doing this now, I know they’ll do it throughout the rest of their live for others.”
The family will start their bike trip at Mt. Bachelor — the same place where Nathan broke his neck almost 16 years ago.
“I’ll admit, it still frustrates me sometimes that I don’t get to do things the way that in my mind I pictured it, that I wanted it to be my whole life,” Nathan said.
“I have to make new dreams. … And it won’t be the same — and it shouldn’t be the same. It can still be just as rewarding, though.”