Saturday, February 21, 2015

The miracle of walking, and running, and beating the odds

(Note: If you've read this previously, skip to the bottom for a special addition)

As I sit here reflecting on the last few weekends, I'm wishing I had Dr. Noonan's phone number, or email address. Because if I did, I might reach out to him and give him two things: 1) A heavy dose of the razzberries, and 2) a HUGE thank you.

Because, you see, Dr. Noonan is the doctor who performed surgery on Drew 16 years ago this week. And during the recovery process, he assured us the surgery went well and that Drew would very likely lead a normal life. But he also warned us that because of Drew's condition at birth that required this surgery, he might not be a real good athlete. "Push him toward science, or math," Dr. Noonan said. "He might never be an athletic star."

And so yeah, maybe he's not a star. But he WAS an All-Star in baseball one summer, and he HAS been the best player on the JV basketball team this year (in one mom and dad's admittedly biased eyes). But if there's a reason he's "not a star," it probably has more to do with him inheriting his mom and dad's height than because of any problems with his feet.

Drew was born with clubbed feet. When I held him for the first time on April 21, 1998, his little feet were so severely deformed that the soles of his feet touched one another. There was no stretching his legs out straight and pretending to make him stand up. They were curled inward in a big way.

The first step in this journey ... well the FIRST step was to pray that God would guide us and help us through it. But after that, the first step was to see an orthopedic doctor. From the very first visit, Drew melted the hearts of every worker in that office. This was a doctor's office who dealt mostly with high school athletes who suffered injuries, and the older generation of people with failing body parts. Not precious newborns. Nurses' faces lit up every time we walked through the door with Drew in our arms, and swarmed around us to say hello.

And so we had a long talk with Dr. Thomas Mathews, when he admitted that his pediatric experience was limited. He was happy to try and help, but if it was decided surgery was needed, he would refer us to someone else. His recommendation was that a process of casts and braces was worth a try. We agreed.

For the next 5-6 weeks, Dr. Mathews put a set of plaster casts on Drew's feet. Drew would wear them for a week, and then Dawn and I would soak the casts at home so we could remove them, clean him up and prepare to do it all over again the next day. 

That practice continued once the casting procedure was finished and we moved on to custom-made plastic braces that Dr, Mathews hoped would help make the casting effort more permanent.

And during the braces time period, I was instructed to "stretch his feet, bending them outward into their correct position, or essentially continuing what the casts and braces were trying to do. I laid him on his back on my footstool, his head away from me and his legs toward me. This was not an easy thing for a parent to do. I cried while doing it, as our newborn cried, sometimes screamed, in obvious pain. Most nights Dawn left the room because she couldn't handle it.

But it wasn't working. Drew's feet were slowly, gradually, but definitely moving back to their birth position.

Next step: Riley Hospital for Children. That's where we would meet Dr. Kenneth Noonan, and he was more than ready to operate on Drew. He was confident, and he was experienced. I don't remember if he told us how many little kiddos like Drew he had operated on, but you could tell in the discussions that this was routine for him. He was confident Drew's feet could be corrected, maybe even with just one surgery. We had done enough research -- and Dawn knew of one student in her school who was born with clubbed feet -- to know that multiple surgeries was a possibility.

Dr. Noonan explained the procedure to us, that he would make incisions in both of Drew's feet, cut tendons, insert
pins, etc. And then he would be in casts for a few weeks. A date was set, and on a cold, snowy morning of Feb. 16, 1999, we got up super early and made the trek to Indianapolis with our nine-month-old boy. Two-year-old Natalie stayed with our beloved Maridene, as she did on every normal day, and we were joined at the hospital by Dawn's mom and close friends Jenny, Brandon and Darrin.

We were told it was likely to be a 5-hour procedure, and we gave little Drewman hugs and kisses as we handed him off to the medical team. And then we waited. And waited. And waited.

There were periodic updates letting us know that things were going as planned, and then Dr. Noonan gave us a good report when he was done, confident that the corrections would ensure Drew would be able to walk as he grew up.

Drew was fitted that day with his first set of fiberglass casts, quite an upgrade from the plaster ones he had in the first few weeks of his life. And colorful, too! And after one night at Riley we went home, ready to lug the little guy around with several extra pounds of weight on his legs.

It was in one of those follow-up visits where Dr. Noonan warned us of possible limitations for Drew. He was very pleased with the results and did not expect Drew to have problems walking, or even running. But doing so in a competitive environment? Maybe not. Encourage him in academics, Dr. Noonan said. That stung a little bit, because Dawn and I both enjoyed sports, I was a sports writer who loved attending events and Dawn was a pretty good athlete when she was young. But we didn't dwell on it, focusing instead on the healing efforts and waiting for those first steps.

And those steps came when Drew was about 18 months old, several months behind his big sister but pretty special to us after seeing his feet in casts and braces for much of the first 13 months of his life.

He learned to walk with no problems, and then started running. And then when he was old enough to play in the youth soccer program at the Y, we signed him up. Our first chance to see him shine. In his second or third season, someone referred to him as Dash, the lightning-quick son in the Disney movie The Incredibles, because he was so fast. There were no lingering effects from that surgery several years ago, and just about every time he raced up and down the field after that soccer ball, Dawn and I shed a tear, exchanged a smile or remembered Dr. Noonan's words.

As he grew up, he tried baseball, track and field, cross country and even football. Enjoyed them all. But his biggest love was basketball. Just about every person who coached him, from fourth grade up to high school, praised him for his hustle and effort.

He hasn't always been the quickest kid on the floor, but he's never been the slowest, either. Even when he's defending a faster opponent, he can use his foot speed to stay in position, or to poke a ball loose. When there is a fast break, Drew is often one of the players out front, finding a burst of speed that isn't always apparent.

He doesn't have that "natural athletic ability" that coaches like to see, and I think that has contributed to limited playing time in some seasons. He doesn't "look" like the kind of kid that's going to take over a game and carry your team. But the coaches this year have praised his "basketball IQ," and that has helped keep him on the court, along with other skills that improve the team. In a JV game a couple weeks ago, he played all but 6 seconds of the game, a testament to what the coaches see in him.

And so when I catch myself saying that my son doesn't have "natural athletic ability," I'm reminded of Dr. Noonan's words of caution 16 years ago.

Only thing is, Dr. Noonan didn't take into account Drew's heart, and mind, as it applies to athletics. And when you factor in those things, Drew shines on the basketball floor.

Go get 'em, No. 11!

P.S. -- I found Dr. Noonan's contact information in the process of writing. I might send this to him.

BONUS BLOG-ADD: I DID send a link to my blog to Dr. Noonan, who told us in one of Drew's follow-ups that he was leaving Riley Hospital for Children to take a position in Wisconsin. I found him still there, working in the pediatric orthopedic surgery clinic in the University of Wisconsin Health network. Here's his reply:

Dear Phil:

Old Doctor Noonan here...

I was forwarded your blog on Drew and I am SO HAPPY to have gotten it! As a dad myself of 5 kids now, I know the joy you have in Drew. It's so wonderful raising kids, yet when one of yours overcomes obstacles ... it's really special.

When I met you guys and had the opportunity to care for Drew, I was "Young" Doctor Noonan. If I was overly cautious in my assessment of Drew's athletic chances it stemmed from inexperience and perhaps some insecurity in my own surgical skills at that stage of my career.

As I have gotten more experience I have encountered more stories such as Drew's. One of my buddies here is an Ironman Triathlete after three clubfeet surgeries. Thus, I am a lot more optimistic in my assessment of potential for kids.

Bottom line ... I would gladly eat a ton of razzberries and hear a lifetime of "I told you so's" if all of my patients were as lucky as Drew. But I suspect (as you have written), that it's not the feet that get him down the court or across the soccer field, it's his heart. A little support from loving parents might have had some part, too.... congratulations!!!

Ken Noonan

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