Photo by Skipping Rocks Photography
by Michelle Ancell
As the story of 6-year-old Garrison Hayes unfolded, it would have been nice if someone could have told his parents that everything was going to be O.K. That the cancer would be gone, that they were making the right choice about the type of amputation they chose, and that even with one leg, Garrison would laugh, run, play soccer and become a world-class athlete.
Then Chris and Kori Hayes would not have had to fear that their son would succumb to cancer at 6 years old. They wouldn’t have had to cry themselves to sleep or worry that their son would be lonely and cast away. But life doesn’t work that way. The Hayes family had to live their lives day-by-day when their son’s future was uncertain.
More than a decade ago, Kori, a mom of three young children, noticed that her middle child, Garrison, favored one leg. Garrison said his left knee was sore. It turned out the knee was sore because of osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor growing in his left leg. It was a parent’s worst fear coming true. And just as she and her husband were trying to figure out how to cope with a cancer diagnosis, doctors explained that the best way to get rid of the tumor was to amputate the 6-year-old’s leg.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kori said. “I guess I had mentally prepared myself for chemotherapy, which was bad enough. But then all of a sudden we were talking about amputation.”
Doctors said the amputation was necessary to get the cancer out of Garrison’s body and save his life. When his parents learned it was a life or death situation, losing the leg became a secondary concern. Doctors presented three different ways they could amputate Garrison’s leg. The one that would offer the most mobility, the Van Ness Rotationplasty, seemed like the right choice for their boy.
At the time, the Van Ness Rotationplasty was a new alternative to conventional leg amputation.
Imagine cutting the leg above the knee and below the knee, then turning the remaining ankle and foot around 180 degrees and attaching it to the thigh. One of the most notable traits of the surgery is how odd it looks to have a half-sized leg with a backward facing foot attached to it. In fact, much of the literature about the surgery suggested the patient talk with a psychologist to help with grief and acceptance.
Fast forward ten years. Garrison is now a strong, handsome young man and a junior at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora. His surgery went well and is now old news to those that know him. He has mastered movement with his prosthetic leg and worked through feelings of being awkward and different.
Along the journey, adults played key roles in ushering him along the path to feeling confident and accomplished. Garrison met a teacher at Canyon Creek Elementary School that had cancer, too. They shared their physical and emotional scars. Mr. Smith, his physical education teacher at the same school, taught him how to jump again.
“Not only did he show me how I could be included in activities, he helped me to realize that with the prosthetic leg, there were things I could do that other kids couldn’t,” Garrison says. “For instance, we figured out that if I were playing goalie in soccer, the prosthetic allowed me to easily do the splits and block the entire goal.”
Finding His Place
A huge turning point in Garrison’s life occurred in middle school, when he met track coach Tom Southall, a Colorado sports legend. Despite being born without a right arm just below his elbow, Southall graduated from Steamboat Springs High School earning 12 letters in three sports. He went on to play football at Colorado College.
For the first time, Garrison saw an accomplished role model with a physical disability. Kori Hayes remembers that day. “He came home and said, ‘Mom, there’s a teacher who’s just like me’,” she says.
Southall introduced Garrison to middle school track and field, and to the Paralympic program. Based in Colorado Springs, U.S. Paralympics is a division of the United States Olympic Committee. The organization promotes excellence in the lives of people with Paralympic- eligible impairments, including physical disabilities and visual impairments.
“As a kid, I’d seen other amputees, but it was usually in a hospital setting,” Garrison says. “At these events people are racing in wheelchairs. Young people are walking across the field carrying their limbs. The first time I was part of this scene, I just kept thinking, ‘This is it. This is where I belong’.”
A Fierce Competitor
Since then, Garrison has found even more than a sense of belonging. Through his hard work, athletic ability and positive outlook on life, he has evolved into an international competitor.
He’s set junior national records in seven track and field events. He has earned 13 medals over the past three years at the International Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports World Junior Games held in the Netherlands, England and Puerto Rico.
In 2014, at the USA Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in California, Garrison earned a gold medal in the high jump and earned a bronze medal in the long jump. He received the National Interscholastic Cycling Association Sho-Air Extraordinary Courage Award in 2014 along with the Colorado High School Cycling League Trailblazer Award. Also that year, Garrison Hayes received the National Sports Center for the Disabled Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s Disabled Athlete Recognition Award.
The John Lynch Foundation recognized Garrison for his commitment to excellence in academics, community involvement and athletics by naming him a 2013 Exceptional Star of the Year Award winner and scholarship recipient.
Garrison has been named a U.S. Paralympic High School All-American in track and field for the past two years and was awarded the honor of being the Male Field Athlete of the Year for 2015.
While international recognition for his athletic achievements fuels Hayes’ confidence and competitive spirit, he said the best part of competing is being surrounded by hundreds of people who “get it.” They understand the tenacity it takes to succeed with a physical disability.
Garrison works out two times a day, intent of making the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He also talks about the 2020 games and beyond. “My athletic goals extend at least until I’m 40 years old. I’ll be running track, cycling and skiing,” he says.
Garrison focuses on his education, completing homework and exploring colleges when he’s not training. Also, doctors and other health care professionals affiliated with Children’s Hospital Colorado call on Garrison to provide encouragement to children who are fighting cancer and coping with amputations.
When visiting kids in the hospital, “I introduce myself and just talk for a while. Then I ask if they want to see my leg. Sometimes they’re scared, but I just tell them that they can do anything they want to do,” Garrison says. “I reassure them that although it will be hard for a while, everything is going to be O.K.”
Michelle Ancell is a Denver-based writer and mother.