A paralyzed war veteran who lives in Clovis is hoping to inspire people to live a healthier life while honoring the memory of a loved one.
Sam Keeney will ride his hand cycle in the American Heart Association's 2013 Heart & Stroke Walk on Saturday.
Keeney gives his fiancée, Sherri LaRue, credit for sending him on a path to better health.
Three years ago, he weighed 340 pounds, had hypertension and diabetes and took morphine for chronic pain relief. Then he fell in love with LaRue, a law student who inspired Keeney to do something about his poor life.
Keeney lost 145 pounds. He no longer is hypertensive. His diabetes is in remission. He is off pain medication. He has become a Paralympic athlete and now works as an adaptive sports assistant at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fresno.
The saddest thing, he says, is LaRue died on May 18 of a rare heart disease that went undetected. She was 45.
Keeney, 51, has vowed to continue where she left off helping him. He is riding in the heart walk at Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis to honor her and tell others that it is possible to reverse heart disease.
The event is designed to support the fight against heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association aims to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20% while reducing deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20% by the year 2020.
Julie Liebel, executive director of the American Heart Association's Central Valley region, says Keeney's road to recovery is inspiring.
"He is incredible, down-to-earth and very smart," Liebel says. "He is pretty amazing how he has been able to turn his life around. Sherri passed away so suddenly. His experience is still very raw, so very emotional for him. He is living for her in a positive way, and this is his first step. He wants to make a difference in her honor and memory."
Keeney served with the Marines for 21 years, but not without injuries and physical problems.
In 1983, he suffered back and leg injuries from the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1989, a tumor developed in his spine. And in 2000, he was in his wheelchair when he was hit by a motorist. He retired from the Marines in 2001.
Keeney is an L1/L2 incomplete paraplegic whose spinal cord is not completely severed. That means he is able to take only a few steps. "But I waddle," he says.
When Keeney met LaRue, he says, his life was spiraling in poor health.
"I couldn't stand, walk or do anything. She met with my doctors and physical therapists and said, 'No, I think he could do more.' "
Caleb LaRue, 17, a student at Kings River High School in Sanger, remembers his mother seeing something in Keeney.
"When it came to boyfriends, she never talked much about them," Caleb says. "But with Sam, she was excited. She didn't mind talking about him and that was different."
Keeney also put in the hard work. He did the physical therapy, made healthier eating choices and expanded his interests with hand cycling. He already was a Paralympic archer.
The hand cycle that he uses is a Top End Force RX, a Paralympic racing cycle that is specially designed for people who can't ride normal bikes. Everything is operated by the hands. He tries to train daily and competes for Team Fresno, an adaptive sports team that includes people with brain injuries and amputees. Last weekend, Keeney competed in an event at Monterey. At top speeds, he reaches 40 mph.
Keeney says it is important that he participate in the American Heart Association event to bring awareness to heart disease and stroke in LaRue's honor.
"What she had could've been prevented," he says. "My diabetes and hypertension are in remission. She saved me from potential heart disease -- and we couldn't save her."
How to help
You can attend, participate in or donate to the American Heart Association's Heart & Stroke Walk on Saturday at Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis. A Lawyers Have Heart Run division begins at 8 a.m., followed by the Heart & Stroke Walk at 9:30.
Details: centralvalleyheartwalk.org or (559) 435-5246
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or email@example.com.