Doctor finds room at the inn for a new life, courtesy of MS
By Rich Tosches
Denver Post Staff Writer
The guests from California were in this Old West town on a vacation tour of the Rockies. The family had spent a night at the inn, and at 8 o'clock on a glorious mountain morning last week, they were hungry. They wanted breakfast. Immediately would be nice.
"Is there any chance," the father asked with a sharp tone as the wife stood with her arms folded across her chest and the two kids just stared, "of getting some cereal? And some bowls? And maybe some bagels? If it's not too much trouble."
Jim Valenzuela looked up from behind the counter at the Water Wheel Inn that he owns. He pushed aside some reservation paperwork and headed toward the continental breakfast nook in the lobby, moving as fast as he could to satisfy his apparently starving guests. His left foot dragged awkwardly behind him.
Once upon a time, before the horrible lesions of multiple sclerosis began to grow on his spinal cord and slowly started to shut down the brain's signals to his left leg and his left hand, Valenzuela had been a surgeon. Now he lays out bagels and makes coffee for people he does not know.
And somehow, he smiles.
"It's interesting," said Valenzuela, a handsome man of 50 with short graying hair, a man adopted as a child in Los Angeles who got his last name from the Mexican immigrant who took him in. "As a doctor, people treat you like God. You know in your heart that's not accurate, but to be honest, you enjoy it. As a motel owner, sometimes you're treated, well, let's say not like God. You're up in the middle of the night fixing a toilet."
The contradiction turned out to be a pretty good deal Saturday for Larry Robinson. The 39-year-old from Boise, Idaho, pulled into the Water Wheel Inn on his Honda motorcycle with his wife, Tiffany, clinging onto the back. He had a bagel for breakfast, and then he felt lousy. He thought a piece of the bagel was stuck in his throat. His chest felt odd. Congested. Heavy. An hour later, Robinson was in the Gunnison Valley Hospital. Soon he was en route to the larger St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, 120 miles to the west.
Robinson wasn't choking on a piece of bagel. He was having a heart attack. And if you could pick a place to have a heart attack, well, the Water Wheel Inn wouldn't be a terrible choice.
"I knew he needed to get to the hospital," said Valenzuela, who gave much of the credit for the early diagnosis to his office manager, Thelma Hildreth.
From his hospital bed in Grand Junction where he is recovering, Robinson passed along a thank-you.
"He made sure I got to the hospital," Robinson said of the innkeeper/doctor. "It was my lucky day, I guess."
The first few years of the 1990s, as Valenzuela completed medical training at the Houston Medical Center to become an eye surgeon, were not his lucky days.
"My left hand began betraying me," he said. "In hindsight, we know it was the multiple sclerosis. ... I was walking around with my foot dragging. It was the first sign. None of us picked up on it."
For the next decade, Valenzuela practiced surgery in Pueblo. He was forced to retire near the end of 2005. His career as a doctor lasted, officially, for 16 years. He and his wife bought the Water Wheel Inn earlier this year. And a new life began.
"I and my three sons (ages 16, 14 and 12) have ridden in the Ride the Rockies bicycle race and the Bicycle Tour of Colorado," he said.
The Tour of Colorado ended last week and covered some 450 miles in seven days.
"Some things now are very bad," Valenzuela said. "I can't button my own shirt without great effort. I can't hold a glass in my left hand because I know it will give out. My gait is pretty bad. My left leg is getting worse. It's progressing now faster than before. Eventually, I'll need a wheelchair.
"But you know what? It's cool. I'm loving it. The motion of pedaling has been unaffected. I can do it. And I wouldn't have done the bicycle rides with my boys or spent so much time with them without the MS. I was too busy."
Staff writer Rich Tosches writes each Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.