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During the summer of 2008, Sam Baker was preparing for his senior-year football season as defensive lineman in summer training camp when he began to have pain in his right leg.
“The pain just kept getting worse and worse over the summer,” Sam recalled. “One of the coaches called me a wussy. That’s when I finally went to the doctor.”
At his first visit to a doctor in Colorado Springs, Colo., he was diagnosed with tendinitis and told to take it easy for a few weeks. The pain didn’t let up.
“I was taking six ibuprofen every four hours just to deal,” Sam admitted.
Then, he noticed a small lump just below his knee. At a second trip to the doctor, light pressure on the lump caused Sam intense pain. After a litany of tests, Sam learned he had osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer.
In addition to the devastating diagnosis, Sam was immediately hit with two harsh realizations: his childhood dream of joining the Air Force would not be fulfilled and he would not be able to play football his senior year.
But Sam was determined to stay optimistic and keep a good sense of humor during his ordeal. “I just knew I had to get through it,” he said.
Sam was referred to Travis Heare, M.D., orthopedic surgeon, at Children’s Hospital Colorado, who told him he would need surgery to remove the cancerous mass. Sam also began chemotherapy.
Sam recalled Dr. Heare saying, “Think about which surgery you want, because you are going to live with it a long time.” Dr. Heare said educating families on the options is essential.
“We hook all our kids up with other kids to learn about possible surgeries so they can make a choice,” he said. “We go over the options, but it’s their decision.”
Of the three options presented to Sam, he settled on the Van Ness procedure — an option which at first he immediately threw out. “When they told me they were going to cut my leg off and put my foot on backwards where my knee was, I said, ‘um, no you’re not.’” But after meeting another child who previously underwent the procedure and seeing all the things he was physically able to do, Sam was sold.
“I told him to think about what he wanted to do physically and he thought about it and told me, ‘let’s just go circus freak all the way,’” said his mom, Shanda Baker. Sam added, “I was a really active kid and didn’t want to not be able to run.”
In January 2009, Sam underwent the five-hour surgery and began a second round of chemotherapy. He walked out of the hospital on crutches and went about the serious business of obtaining the perfect prosthetic leg.
“I have been to the Amputee Clinic a few times. It helped nail down the way my leg needs to be by using X-rays and physical therapists, and they were always friendly and really cared about me getting around. They also met with my prosthetic guy and told him exactly what needed to be done.” Added Sam, “I wanted to walk across the stage at graduation, and I did.”
Sam enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College in the spring of 2010, and is interested in pursuing a career in mechanical engineering. He’s also returned to his high school alma mater where he serves as a freshman football coach. Soon, Sam expects he’ll be cleared to get back to the gym so he can begin lifting weights again.
He recently returned to the Center for Gait and Movement Analysis (CGMA) at Children’s. There he received a comprehensive analysis of his gait and movement. The CGMA is the region’s first center of its kind and one of only about 40 in the country.
“I went back for a fancy screening where they took a digital ‘skeleton’ of me — if you’ve ever seen a behind-the-scenes of a movie with CGI characters with actors in those suits with sensors on them, and the computer captures their movement, that’s the skeleton — and based off of that, they can start working with me to get my gait perfect.”
Added Susan Kanai, physical therapist at the CGMA, “Our goal is getting Sam back to having unlimited options for his life.”