A Courageous Comeback: Stepping Up to a New Beginning
To watch a video of Kyle running during his therapy session, scroll to the bottom of page.
Kyle Uminski, a junior at Plainfield East High School and dedicated athlete, has always loved the game of football. Having played since he was a young boy, he advanced quickly on his high school team. He was considered a Division I player and dreamed of playing at his parents’ alma mater in Pittsburgh.
During a typical football practice in July 2012, Kyle broke and dislocated his ankle. The complicated break required surgery and the placement of a rod, pins, and 12 screws in his foot and ankle. The doctors assured him that by the end of August, he’d begin rehabilitation and start the recovery process.
Or so they thought.
By the end of August, Kyle was diagnosed with a staph infection which can destroy surrounding soft tissue. The infection quickly spread to the bone and open wounds formed around his ankle.
Kyle was admitted to the hospital for three weeks. A surgical procedure was performed in which most of the hardware was removed and a flap of skin from his abdomen was grafted to his ankle to close one of his wounds and to promote healing. The incision from his original surgery in July also remained open, and in December, a second flap surgery was performed to help aid in the healing of that wound as well. Kyle was fitted with a cast to protect his leg as it healed. However, when the cast was removed a month later, it was discovered that the wounds had not healed. The infection was still present.
“I remember Kyle saying to me, ‘God must want me to carry this cross for a while longer,’” Kyle’s mother, Maria, explained. “But as his mom, I was so frustrated. He was on crutches for six months since the initial surgery, was being tutored at home, and was unable to return to a normal life. We were desperate for answers. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic confirmed we were dealing with a chronic bone infection. They gave us two options: They could try to fuse the bone, essentially starting the entire process all over again from square one, or they could amputate. It was the first time anyone had used that word. I was blown away.” In March, holding out hope to save his foot and ankle, a fusion surgery was performed. An external fixator was placed on his leg to keep it stabilized and would remain in place for 12 to 15 weeks.
During this time, Maria was feeling more angst. “Something didn’t feel right about this last surgery,” she explains. “We didn’t see any signs of healing and the incision kept opening. In June, exploratory surgery was done to determine if the infection was still present. It was inconclusive. So, we waited.”
In mid-July, as Maria was cleaning around the wound with a Q-tip, she watched as the swab slipped right through Kyle’s skin. There was another wound.
“The doctor said we could try the fusion again. I looked over at Kyle and he hung his head in despair,” Maria says.
Kyle, who by nature is always positive and upbeat, realized his breaking point. “It was probably my lowest time,” says Kyle. “Alone in my room, I cried and prayed, asking God why this was happening and to please take the burden off of me. It was then that I realized that in life, it doesn’t get easier; you just get stronger.”
“Kyle was concerned that we were going to try to push to do the fusion again, and he just didn’t have faith that this was going to be a good idea,” Maria explains. “I was devastated, as I knew our only next step would be amputation. They assured us that with all the advancements in the field of prosthetics, Kyle would be able to do so many things, including sports. For the first time, we were hearing something positive for him.” More than 13 months after his initial injury, and 12 surgeries later, Kyle’s leg was amputated just below the knee.
Dan Hasso, a prosthetist at Scheck and Siress, casted Kyle for his new prosthesis. On October 7, Kyle tried on his new prosthetic leg and proudly walked through the office. Dan recommended Marianjoy for outpatient therapy to help Kyle learn to use the prosthesis while continuing to improve physically.
“I referred Kyle to Marianjoy because they have a concentrated group of therapists who have expertise on how to rehab a patient with an amputation, while understanding the nuances of adjusting to the prosthesis,” states Dan. “I firmly believe that when a patient with a prosthesis receives rehabilitation, the learning curve is cut by as much as 75% and their function returns quicker than you can imagine.”
“For us, Marianjoy is not across the street, but it’s certainly worth the drive,” confirms Maria. “I like the team approach. Natalie Look, Kyle’s physical therapist, and Dan talk often to discuss changes in his limb, the fit of the prosthesis, and any skin issues he’s experiencing. This gives me great peace of mind in knowing that there is an open line of communication and that they are looking out for Kyle’s best interests.”
Natalie continues to educate Kyle on the use of the prosthetic leg and the care of the skin on his residual limb. “All prosthetic wearers have a risk of skin breakdown, regardless of their age or medical history,” explains Natalie. “The friction from the hard plastic of the prosthetic socket or even a bad fit can cause the skin to blister and break open, leading to sores. It was very important that Kyle was taught how to check his skin on a regular basis. Up to six months after surgery, his residual limb will continue to shrink as a result of atrophy and as the swelling from the surgery decreases. As this occurs, we monitor the prosthesis to make sure it is fitting him correctly and comfortably.”
Because of Kyle’s athleticism and his desire to return to sports, Dan recommended a hybrid foot for his prosthesis which includes the technology of a blade runner with the added stability of a heel. “With many years of experience as a football coach myself, I’m confident that this prosthesis will enable Kyle to perform athletically in any sport,” explains Dan. “With the spring mechanism that is used to control the mechanics of the prosthetic leg, he needed an experienced therapist to help him achieve stability and forward thrust using just his thigh, glutes, and core.”
In just a few short sessions, Natalie worked with Kyle and had him running, jumping, and exercising. “At Marianjoy, all they do is rehabilitation, so the staff has a lot of experience. That’s what makes them the best,” states Kyle. “And Natalie is a perfectionist, like me. She continually challenges me and she uses her knowledge of sports and running to connect with me. She explains everything thoroughly and then makes sure I understand it completely.”
Kyle remains positive about his future. He still plans to attend college in Pittsburgh and may pursue a career that includes his passion for the game of football. He’s considering becoming a fitness trainer, coach, or even a teacher. He’s hoping that during the 2014 season, he can join his teammates on the field for one last play of his senior year.
“Kyle is an extraordinary young man who is filled with faith,” notes Maria. “I’m angry he had to go through all of this, and I get upset at times when I see that half of his leg is gone. But then he tells me he doesn’t want me to feel bad and that there are people who have experienced so much worse than he has.”
“I have completely embraced the fact that I no longer have a foot or ankle,” Kyle says. “And really, at the end of the day, I take off my prosthesis like anyone else takes off their shoes. It’s just a part of my life now.”
Kyle is even talking about getting back into sports; maybe wrestling or running a 5k with his mom. His therapist is confident he’ll be able to do so with great success.
“I don’t want people to feel bad for me or treat me differently because I no longer have my leg. You need to accept your cross in life and I just appreciate what I still have. I realize how much worse my situation could have been. I’m not going to allow this to hold me back. I have a lot of things yet to accomplish.”