Amputation Won't Stop This Rider Junior's Football Career
Amputation Won’t Stop This Rider Junior’s Football Career
Colton Ward endures amputation to get a leg up on life
Chief Master Sergeant John Ward (left), Rider High School junior Colton Ward (center), and Stephanie Ward (right) collect a $2,000 check from the Texas High School Coaches Association June 12. The gift supports athletes, like Colton, who have suffered a severe injury playing high school sports. Colton’s right leg was amputated mid-calf on May 10, 2017, after an injury during football practice on August 10, 2015.
By Ann Work Goodrich
It’s not every day that a high school junior makes the kind of decision that Rider High School junior Colton Ward recently faced.
Colton decided it was time to amputate part of his right leg.
After a leg injury during a Rider High School football practice on August 10, 2015, Colton endured 14 surgeries, months of searing nerve pain and so many doctor visits, hospital stays and painful procedures that kept him homebound that he decided amputation of his leg mid-calf was the best way to finally go forward in life.
While many accident victims may suffer the loss of a leg, the decision is often made for them in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. But for Colton, the decision was a deliberate one, made about 18 months following his original injury. The actual amputation was performed May 10.
“I’m dealing with it fine,” said Colton during an interview in the Rider strategy room near Coach Marc Bindel’s office before a summer football work-out. He walked in on crutches. “I’m having fun. I’m flexible. I can put my stump over my head,” he joked, lifting his bandaged right thigh to his shoulder.
On June 12, Colton and his parents, John and Stephanie Ward, met Coach Bindel at his office to receive a $2,000 check, presented by WFISD Athletic Director Scot Hafley on behalf of Marty McBride and the Texas High School Coaches Association. The check is to help with medical expenses for athletes like Colton with severe injuries. It also comes with the first of 10 $150-checks to help cover the many expenses of an injury and rehab.
It comes just 33 days after the amputation surgery.
The decision to finally do it was so difficult that his mother wept at the memory, and his father, a 25-year active-duty Air Force chief master sergeant, teared up.
While the decision was uniquely Colton’s own, his parents had also suffered, watching their beloved son cope with so much pain, only to lose the leg anyway.
“I’ll tell you, Colton, when you decided to get it amputated, it was bittersweet,” said his father. “I knew that’s what you needed for you to go forward as a young man and to live the life you wanted to live. I was happy for you. I didn’t have the mental fortitude to make that kind of decision when I was your age. I’m envious of your maturity to make that decision. That’s why it’s hard for us.”
His son’s courage, he said, “makes me stronger every day.”
The morning of August 10, 2015 was warm, but the searing heat of the Texas summer day hadn’t yet reached its zenith. Colton was on the Rider High School practice field, running plays with his teammates, gearing up for his first football season as a freshman.
This was nothing new. He had played football since third grade, mostly as a running back. In sixth-grade he moved to defense, as outside linebacker. “It just clicked with me,” he said. It was the spot the 6-foot-tall athlete intended to play as a freshman.
In fact, it was just one of many sports he intended to play once he was in high school. “I was going to do track, soccer, football and baseball,” he said. “I was going to be that guy. A stud.”
His dad remembers it. “He said, ‘Dad, I want to try it all and be everything I can be at Rider High School.’”
On that morning practice, Colton was playing wide receiver, going for a screen pass, taking one step forward, with two shuffle steps backward, then turning to look for the ball to be thrown. There it came. But it was so wide that his fingers only grazed it. He ran after the ball and was hit on his right side, a tackle that sent him to the ground in agony.
Everybody thought he’d broken his leg.
But the injury turned out to be more than that. While the morning practice moved 15 yards downfield, the coaches and athletic trainers hovered over Colton, called an ambulance, gave him painkillers and waited for emergency responders, who eventually added to his agony by trying to straighten his leg.
Coach Marc Bindel took a picture of Colton’s initial injury – a gruesomely twisted knee and leg bone that had each rotated 90 degrees. His mother has refused to look at the photo and made Colton promise never to show it to her; his dad has yet to see it.
Dislocated knee, severed popliteal artery
They would later learn that Colton dislocated his knee and severed his popliteal artery, which is an artery deeply placed inside the leg that is a continuation of the femoral artery. The tear was serious; once he arrived at United Regional Hospital, officials searched for a pediatric vascular surgeon. Losing precious time, they put him on a helicopter for an Air Vac transfer to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
It was the one piece of “cool” in the whole experience. Colton remembers being carried out of the helicopter on a stretcher while the blades spun. Then came 11 hours of surgery – in and out several times during three days while being kept in a medically induced coma.
That hospital stay would last nearly one month. Doctors fixated on his severed artery, trying to repair it and make sure it didn’t clot. Then they went back in to attach an external fixator, a rod to keep the leg straight and immobile, which would give the artery time to heal. Doctors believed – hoped – it would heal.
Team visit a highlight
The day the Rider High School freshman football team visited Colton at Parkland was a big picker-upper. Coach Bindel had been a constant support since Colton’s injury, a constant presence in the waiting room throughout his surgeries, staying all day. But there’s nothing like the noisy visit of teammates to revive a teenager. The noise filled the hospital hallway. “Colton was super charged when the freshman team came to see him,” recalls his dad. “That really lifted his spirits. Even all the nurses on the ward were letting things slide. Boys will be boys; they were being loud.”
Before they left, the team joined together, shouting three times, “One family, one team!” That brought even Colton’s hospital neighbors out into the hallway to see what was happening.
Rider football Coach Marc Bindel visits Colton Ward at the hospital.
But as the weeks passed, Colton’s recovery faced setback after setback. He battled persistent swelling, which required doctors to perform two fasciotomies on the outside of his lower right leg. The two long parallel slits down his calf created space for the fluid “so the leg wouldn’t burst,” said his mom. The fasciotomies were covered with wound vacs, which are designed to pull the fluid out of the leg. But even closing them up wasn’t easy; he required a skin graft to complete the closure. “They could close one side but not the inside one without tearing the other one,” said Colton. “That was lovely.”
“That was painful,” remembers his mom.
Even taking off the donor site bandage to use the skin graft was problematic. It had grown so hard that wetting it down didn’t work.
“The first one they had to rip off,” said John Ward. “And the second one, too.”
Colton bled so heavily that he received a blood infusion. His doctor was shocked at how much blood he lost, recalls his mom. “He nicknamed her Dr. Demon.”
Relentless companion: Nerve pain
But despite the surgeries, skin graft, and fasciotomies, no procedure compared in pain to one other relentless companion that attached itself to Colton throughout the entire ordeal.
“The most painful pain of my entire life was nerve pain. I can say that without a doubt,” said Colton. “That came two days after I woke up (from the injury).”
The injury had damaged the nerves in his lower leg, coupling the pain of the swelling and surgeries with an ever-present burning, searing, and stinging misery that overshadowed everything else.
“It would cause him to scream for weeks and months on end,” recalls his mother grimly.
“There was a time when the heaviest adult narcotic would barely touch the pain for 15 minutes to give him relief, get him to calm down,” said his dad. “Those were tough times. But he’s a tough kid.”
It was the nerve pain that prevented him from returning to school in between surgeries; the pain would have eclipsed anything going on in a classroom, said Colton.
Plus, though the pain was real, it seemed mysterious to everybody else. “It’s a hard concept to see somebody in pain but there’s no physical place to see hurting or reason to see hurting,” he said. Such is the cruelty of nerve pain.
“It was even hard for us as his parents,” said his dad. “I can’t know what nerve pain feels like. Only he can.”
There always seemed to be another surgery. One for the external fixator removal. A knee scope. A knee repair. Ten surgeries at Parkland, 14 before it was all over.
Meanwhile, Colton attacked his rehab like an athlete, striving to regain flexibility. He clashed with one doctor whom he later dismissed when she rudely blamed him for everything he was unable to do in rehab. “There was nothing I could do, but she wanted me to push. She wanted to yell at me that it was my fault,” he said. He grew so frustrated he insisted she examine the area with a scope; he was convinced there was a physical reason he couldn’t get his leg past an 85-degree angle.
He was right. A small piece of bone impeded his movement. Once that was discovered, his rehab began progressing as expected.
About that time, Coach Bindel connected him with a new doctor at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, a facility that specializes in sports injuries. They clicked. The relationship was another bright spot in the torturous healing process.
One year passes
As the one-year anniversary of his injury approached, Colton assessed the year marked by a constant battle for recovery. He wondered if amputation was inevitable – or preferable.
“I was getting down about it,” he said. “I couldn’t go to school at all or I’d be screaming out. So I was homebound. I began to consider amputating. Doctors told me it was too early. This could take time. They talked me into not doing it or asking about it. They wanted me to hold off.”
“They thought the nerve could heal,” recalls his mom.
The sidelined student athlete tried to gradually increase his activity level. He upped his walking to jogging. But that caused a toe ulcer, which forced him to wear a walking boot to get around. When it healed, he’d try again. Another ulcer, another failed attempt at better mobility. “I was just repeating the cycle. I didn’t want to deal with it,” he said.
In August 2016, at the one-year anniversary of the injury, doctors at Scottish Rite conducted a nerve test to see if there were any chance the nerve would heal. “The results were very grim,” said Colton. “It was not good. So I was like, ‘That’s my answer, really.’ There’s no chance for it. It’s just going to continue to hurt.”
By the holiday break in December 2016, Colton had thought about it enough. He went to his mom and laid out the case for amputation. “Mom,” he said. “I want to do this.”
Even half a year later, his mother tears up at the memory. “I knew he couldn’t save it,” she said. “Obviously I didn’t want him to have it amputated. But I was hoping if he did, he’d at least be able to have a life.”
The amputation date was set for June 2. But Colton – determined to rejoin his football team for summer practices – decided that wouldn’t give him enough time to be ready for practices. He asked that the surgery be moved up. “I’m playing in August,” he told his nurses. “Try to stop me.”
They had to coordinate his amputation surgery with several doctors and schedule it at another hospital since he is also a hemophiliac, someone whose blood takes longer to clot. “They got it together and made it happen,” said Colton.
Quandry ends May 10
His right leg was amputated May 10. He awoke to nausea and trouble breathing, unusual reactions to a new anesthesia. “I felt like a newb (to surgery); I’m used to being a pro,” he said.
But the quandary of losing the leg or not losing the leg was over.
“’It finally happened,’ I thought. ‘I’m rid of that pain.’ But it was time for a new one. On the second day of surgery, I was just lying in my bed, just chilling – what else am I going to do in a hospital bed – and my foot (that’s no longer there) starts to hurt. I was like, ‘This makes no sense.’ I asked the nurse, ‘How come my foot hurts?’”
“Phantom pain,” said the nurse. It is the odd sensation that a severed limb is still there.
Doctors had warned Colton that he could expect such phantom pain several months after the surgery. But not right away.
“Mom did research, and she found out if you had nerve pain before, you’re likely to have it immediately after (amputation),” he said. “It was a different pain, but it was less. It was better, I have to say. It’s a weirder pain.”
He can feel the phantom pain even now. “I can feel my (severed) foot,” he said. “I can feel if I try to move it.”
By Day 2 following amputation, Colton began his physical therapy. His physical therapist half-teased that she would cut off all his pain medication if he didn’t comply. “OK, I’m getting up!” he agreed.
Working around his PICC line, the small catheter inserted above his elbow to administer his medications, Colton used a walker to move around. “I didn’t want to fall, because I didn’t have the second leg to catch myself,” he said. “I felt like an old person. I’m not ashamed of it. I used the walker at home for a long time.”
Then he upgraded to his favorite old pair of crutches that had seen him through other injuries.
Today, Colton is fully mobile with his crutches and showing up for Rider football work-outs. Doctors okayed him to work on his arms and upper body, to do ab work and bench presses.
Two prosthetic limbs coming
He’s awaiting two different kinds of prostheses – one a prosthetic blade customized for him and one a leg-look-alike prosthesis. “We’ll see which one works best for football and sports,” he said.
His plans for the summer include getting sized for a gel sleeve, then having the gel sleeve put on, then being sized for the capsule, or socket, for the prosthetic. They’ll do a laser image of his remaining calf, ankle and foot to size his new leg similarly. He’ll be an outpatient at Scottish Rite while he is fitted and learns to walk with both.
But he has every intention of showing up Aug. 14 for the first Rider football practice of the year – and for padded practice, which begins Aug. 18. The team’s first game is Sept. 1. “I’ve got time!” he said confidently. “I’ll be OK.”
Return to the football team
Colton’s return to the team will undoubtedly bring a new dynamic to the meaning of hard work for himself – and his teammates.
“He is definitely a picture of hard work,” said Coach Bindel. “Obviously, this family has been through a lot of trials and tribulation. There are not many kids in our football program, or really in our athletic program, who are going to be throwing out a lot of excuses. They don’t have the right to, honestly. A lot of guys are inspired by Colton to work hard.”
Colton had only four words to explain his goals from this point on.
“Work hard,” he said. “Get swoll.”
Ready to return to his interrupted morning work-out Monday, Colton followed Coach Bindel outside into the morning sun. Coach Bindel jogged down the strip of grass from his office to the playing field. Colton, on crutches, plodded several yards behind him.
Colton’s dad, standing in the parking lot, watched his son trailing behind. “Colton, run!” he shouted. “Coach Bindel is beating you!”
Colton looked across the parking lot at his dad, then at his coach sprinting to the practice field ahead of him. Determined anew, he jumped on his good leg a few times in mock consternation, then put his crutches into high gear.
He crossed the grass in seconds in his first crutch-race.
Editor’s Note: On Sept. 22, 2017, Colton Ward made good on his promise to return to the football field despite the injury that ultimately cost him part of his right leg. He participated in the Rider High School game against Kennedale when he participated in a point after touchdown play, wearing his prosthetic leg. What was the highlight of the night? “My highlight was everyone welcoming me on the field and chanting my name in the stands, enveloping me in the ‘One Family One Team’ mindset,” he said.