A Cyclist’s Long Journey and the Resolve to Pedal On

March 03, 2021
Nola Paterni
Associate Director, Marketing & Communications (USA)

Khristopher Nicholas is a PhD candidate at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and an accomplished cyclist. Born with bilateral clubfoot in Trinidad and Tobago, his journey, and all that he has learned along the way, inspired him to become an advocate and ambassador for MiracleFeet’s work worldwide.

Khristopher has always loved adventures on two wheels—from motorcycle camping in Virginia, to riding fixies in Manhattan, to gravel bike adventures in North Carolina. Last year, he started cycling competitively and was recruited by the 700cYCLING Concepts team in Raleigh—a predominantly Black cycling group built on the importance of purpose and representation in cycling.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic gave Khristopher the excuse he needed to devote himself to cycling, giving him a healthy outlet and distraction from his dissertation. Even before joining the team, Khristopher loved exploring on his bicycle, and spent hours scouring Craigslist for parts to build his own. He even made a solo journey from the Georgia/Florida state line to Key West in December 2020. The 600-mile trek took him seven days and left him mosquito-bitten and hungry, but eager for more cycling adventures. After completing the journey, Khristopher spent the holidays with his parents and sisters in Ft. Lauderdale where he lived as a child when they moved from Trinidad and Tobago. While visiting after his long ride, he admits that he promptly regained any burned calories from devouring his mom’s delicious Trini holiday dishes.

When Khristopher was born his parents were thrilled to welcome him into the world and had no reason to believe anything was amiss—until his tiny feet emerged during birth, and the doctor caught his breath, uttering a telling “oh.”

Khristopher’s parents sought treatment for his clubfoot, but at the time the recommended method in Trinidad involved a series of surgeries. He received his first surgery at six weeks old. After, he wore casts, meant to help his feet heal properly, but they did not fit well and would slip off his little legs. He didn’t start walking until about two years old, but he was an exceptional crawler. He would speed crawl around his island home refusing to let his limited mobility hinder his curiosity or desire to explore—once even pulling a snake out of the corner by its tail, much to his mother’s horror.

When Khristopher moved to the US with his family, he still experienced pain and mobility issues related to his clubfoot, even after several surgeries. His parents hoped to find additional treatment for him, but, as recent immigrants facing many new challenges, that hope seemed out of reach. Then one day, while waiting for the bus in Ft. Lauderdale, his mother spotted a passing transport van for the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, which provides life-changing medical care for children at no cost. Caught off guard and without a pen to jot down the phone number, she wrote it with lipstick. “I will always cherish my mother’s love and support.”

“That one action, fishing through her purse at a bus stop to scribble down a phone number on a passing van, changed my life.”

Khristopher was enlisted as a patient soon after. He had several more corrective surgeries before his final one in 2007 when he was 12 years old. Balancing aesthetics with function, doctors fused several bones in his left ankle and cut the tendons beneath his left toes so they looked straight, but didn’t bend or function correctly. With staples in his left foot, a metal rod in left shin, fused bones, and cut tendons, walking was still painful, but Khristopher tried not to let his condition impede his life’s progress. He eventually moved to New York City for college and then to North Carolina for graduate school.

It wasn’t until two years ago when Khristopher saw a documentary created by two UNC graduate students called The Footnote1 Project, that he learned about the global scale of clubfoot and the Ponseti Method, a low-cost, non-invasive treatment that restores mobility in 95% of cases. Through the film and through his friendship with the film’s creators, Zach and Hannah, Khristopher also learned about MiracleFeet and our mission to end clubfoot by making treatment available globally.

Worldwide, 2 million children under 10 live with untreated clubfoot.

Unfortunately, only 13% of children in low- and middle-income countries (where 90% of cases occur) can access the treatment, and of the 9.75 million people alive today who were born with clubfoot, 8 million never received care.

Although Khristopher was not treated with the Ponseti Method as a child, he experienced marked improvement in mobility when he discovered the Ottobock WalkOn reaction brace—a foot brace/orthotic insert hybrid that significantly alleviates pain and discomfort by supporting the foot and distributing weight up the shin. Since receiving his first pair of braces, he has not only become a much more competitive cyclist but has hiked the tallest peak East of the Mississippi river, can stand for longer than 30 minutes, and (still surprisingly to him) genuinely enjoys walking.

“I can’t overstate how much I love these braces. They have been life-changing. I can walk, run, hike, and dance (poorly) with much less pain.” While they help alleviate pain, they have their limitations and are not a permanent treatment. They wear out quickly with active lifestyles, are expensive to replace, and can only be worn with certain kinds of shoes.

When Khristopher thinks of the future, he is doubtful he’ll pursue additional surgeries, although he still has a lot of questions he would like to ask a surgeon. But mostly he’s focused on doing the most he can with what he has where he is—and helping raise awareness about the need for effective clubfoot treatment worldwide.

“I really want to win these races,” he says determinedly. “Instead of wondering what I can do, I wonder what can’t I do?”