Seattle Cyclist Rides Coast-to-Coast to Help Kids With Cancer Thanks to Knee Replacement Surgery

Photo of Ray Wittmier in a bike helmet looking into the camera and smiling. Photo on the left of Ray Wittmier giving a friend a high five

Ray Wittmier, left; Gene Woodward and Ray Wittmier, right

Ray Wittmier never imagined living with a painful, aging knee would have played a part in making a 3,428-mile bike trip across the country.

On May 20, 2022, the 67-year-old retiree left Seattle and biked to Coney Island, New York. What made his feat even sweeter was his epic ride raised more than $21,000 to help change the lives of kids with cancer.

When he and longtime riding partner Gene Woodward set off from Puget Sound, they were making good on an idea they’d batted around for a few years. Thanks to some upgraded hardware — a knee replacement for Ray and a hip replacement for Gene — the retirees were confident about taking on the 49-day trek.

Ray, a lifelong Seattle native, is no stranger to an active lifestyle.

“I remember biking all around Seattle on my Schwinn with friends as a kid,” Ray says.

Growing up, he got involved with sports — football, track and basketball. Then in college, he turned to sculling, rowing as part of Washington State University’s crew team for four years. After college, Ray biked and added running to the mix, competing in 10K events. As a 50-year-old, he finished his first marathon.

Knee pain slows a lifelong athlete

By Ray’s mid-to-late 50s, years of wear-and-tear on his knee began to catch up.

“I started having knee pain and had to back off running,” Ray says.

Determined not to let a bum knee sideline him, Ray kept biking and transitioned from running to hiking and climbing. He and his wife hit the trails every weekend. But eventually, Ray began relying on ibuprofen to take the edge off his knee pain, wondering if pain would keep him from finishing hikes.

Ray finally saw a doctor, who confirmed the source of Ray’s pain: the cartilage in Ray’s knee was gone. With no cushioning to allow his joint to move pain-free, Ray would need a knee replacement. But he wasn’t ready for surgery.

“I didn’t want to be laid up for a few months and not be active,” Ray says.

In reality, knee pain had already whittled away the active lifestyle Ray loved. He was down to mainly biking, and even that caused pain. And then Ray had a ski outing with a friend which turned out to be his “that’s it” moment.

“I tried to do only half of a day,” Ray recalls. “But even that was just too painful.”

UW Medicine makes Ray confident about saying “yes” to knee replacement

Online research and friends’ recommendations led Ray to UW Medicine’s Hip and Knee Clinic in North Seattle and orthopedic surgeon Navin Fernando, MD.

It took one visit with Dr. Fernando for Ray to know he was ready for a knee replacement.

“Dr. Fernando recognized exactly what was going on,” says Ray. “He said I’d likely injured my knee at some point, maybe even back in high school. That small injury had caused the knee to wear differently.”

Ray came away from the appointment with surgery scheduled — he had no question Dr. Fernando knew what he was doing. On July 28, 2021, Ray got his new knee at UW Medicine and started putting it to work in physical therapy six days later. Over the next 12 weeks, he made progress in rehabbing it, though the overachiever admits, sometimes not as quickly as he wanted.

But by his last follow-up visit, Ray was happy to hear Dr. Fernando say that skiing by Christmas was realistic. Ray took him at his word; on Christmas Day, he and his son hit the slopes.

“I was a little nervous about it, but the knee felt good,” Ray says.

New knee, new adventures

It was all Ray needed to start planning the cross-country trek with Gene. They wanted the ride to be about more than marking off miles. They found their purpose in a young girl named Maya, a family friend of Gene who had undergone treatment for a rare childhood cancer. The biking team decided to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds research to find cures for childhood cancers.

The bikers set off on May 20, averaging 70 miles a day and staying in hotels or with family and friends along the way. Ray couldn’t be happier about how his new knee held up.

“I was a little nervous about putting it to the test, but there was never a day it hurt,” he says. “Before the knee replacement, I might have only gotten through the first day or two without pain.”

Ray not only raised money for kids and cancer, but he also found out exactly what his new knee could do. After biking thousands of miles, Ray says he felt stronger than ever.

“Every day, I had fresh energy. And I never had a knee issue. With the daily cycling and focused stretching, I actually gained more flexibility.”

Now that his new knee has proved itself, Ray has a new goal — summiting Mount Rainier with his son.

“I wouldn’t be doing it without my new knee.”

Ray’s advice for someone putting off a knee replacement?

“Don’t. It’s a new life. When you start changing the way you live and what you do, it's time. You live the life you want. I should have done it five years ago.”