When La Jolla High School graduate Max Needham (Class of 2011) rode his bike onto the sand of Ocean Beach on Dec. 26, it was quite the meaningful moment. His arrival in San Diego marked the end of a 3,000-mile, 55-day bike ride across the country to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.
His motivation, he explained, was an in-depth look at the effects of the disease. During his studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Needham was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), which often brought him face to face with people coping with Alzheimer’s. “I worked with all these nursing homes and saw so many people debilitated by this disease,” he said. “It’s a nine-year prognosis once you are diagnosed and some people get to the point where they can’t even speak. It’s a decline of all your cognitive functions. Seeing people in all stages of it made me want to do something.”
Further, Needham’s grandmother experienced moderate dementia toward the end of her life. “She wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she had dementia. So there might be some history in my family,” he said. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
He started off by researching Alzheimer’s organizations and found the Boston-based Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. He said 100 percent of all money raised for the fund goes directly to research. To date, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund has produced $34 million for research. According to it website, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund initiatives have been responsible for several key breakthroughs — including a potential treatment recently selected by the National Institutes of Health for its elite “Blueprint” drug discovery program, and the ground-breaking “Alzheimer’s in a Dish” study, which promises to greatly accelerate drug testing, heralded by The New York Times.
To raise money and awareness for the organization, Needham and his college roommate decided to embark on a cross-country bike ride they hoped would have the same effect as a road trip, but be a richer experience.
“I’ve been on a lot of road trips, and I always found it frustrating how quickly we would go through places. I wanted to see more of the country, more slowly, and not from a car window,” Needham said. “But I didn’t have a ton of experience with long-distance bike riding. I’ve never ridden more than 20-30 miles in one day. My roommate talked me into it.”
However, the roommate backed out at the last minute. Still motivated, Needham set out on his bike alone. “My brother goes to school in Atlanta, so I wanted to start there,” he said, and departed Nov. 1.
His mother, Jeannie Needham of Mission Hills, said that hearing that her son would be embarking on such a large undertaking on his own was worrisome. “I know people that have cycled like this, but they aren’t totally alone. So for him to do what he did took guts,” she said. “I think it was way more than I could have done at his age or any age!”
To document the scenic country in all its glory, Needham would occasionally stop to take a photo or paint a watercolor when inspiration struck. To further raise research money, he will be accepting donations for his watercolor paintings. “Those who donate can write in their address and the state they want a watercolor from, and then I’ll either send them one I’ve already painted or paint them a new one!” he said. “I have a lot of pictures (from which I could paint). The state options would be Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.”
As a forum for donations, Needham set up a GoFundMe page, with all gifts going to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. He noted on his page: “While I do not personally have the resources to do this now, on my word, I will match the total amount donated during my time as a resident physician.”
His page has already surpassed $2,000. His watercolors are also available on his GoFundMe page by donation.
“I’ve seen a lot of cool things on this trip, but mostly I’ve seen so much kindness from people,” he said. “When I came down a mountain range, people would stop to offer me water and make sure I was OK.” He also said while in San Elizario, Texas, he met the mayor and found out she used to be a bartender at La Valencia Hotel! “Some random, cool, weird things happened on my trip,” he said.
As a last hurrah to close the trip, he decided to surprise his parents. “On Christmas Eve I snuck into my parents’ backyard after they were asleep and camped in my tent. I had told them a few days before that I had needed to order a replacement part in Arizona, and so they thought I was still there and would miss Christmas,” he said. But on Christmas morning, they went outside to investigate the mysterious tent that had popped up, and found Needham. “The look on their faces was amazing!” he said.
He set out the next day to finish the journey, and rode his bike onto the beach that afternoon. His first stop post-odyssey was Don Carlos Taco Shop on Pearl Street, where he was met with friends, many of whom were also La Jolla grads.
• For more information or to donate, visit gofundme.com/df5d3dxp