A cancer diagnosis resulted in the loss of his left leg, but for 18-year-old Robert Ram, that amputation has transformed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
Growing up, Ram was a typical athletic kid, playing baseball and football. He also experienced the typical aches and pains associated with sports, which his parents assumed were growing pains. However, one day the pain in his left leg was so consuming that Ram could barely walk.
After several X-rays and a biopsy, Ram, then 13 years old, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, and was treated at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. He received chemotherapy for 6 months, and once the tumor shrunk, Ram’s doctors suggested that he undergo an amputation.
“The doctors said that this would be the best way to go and least likely chance of the cancer coming back later,” Ram said. “But I didn’t want that because I thought it would limit my ability to do things when I was older.”
Ram and his parents initially opted for a bone transplant. However, post-surgery, Ram began to lose feeling in his toes, and after 2 weeks, he had no sensation below his knee.
“After 2 weeks in and out of the emergency room, nothing helped,” Ram said. “The amputation was pretty much the last resort. It was a big shock for me and my family.”
Ram underwent a transfemoral amputation and spent the next few months recovering and finishing chemotherapy. He received his first prostheses from Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics and began physical therapy soon after.
“The day that I started physical therapy, they asked me what my one goal was, and I told them that my goal was to walk to school again on the first day of eighth grade,” Ram said. “My house is about a quarter of a mile away from my school, and I had walked there every day since kindergarten. After physical therapy, I was able to do that.”
Challenged Athletes Foundation
His prosthetists at Hanger introduced Ram to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).
“Before I could even get off my crutches or walk properly, [my prosthetist] Amy took me to the CAF triathlon in La Jolla to show me that there is a world out there of people just like me,” Ram said.
Ram has since become a mentor for CAF and usually attends the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, CAF’s annual fundraiser.
“Every time that I go there, I see someone who inspires me,” Ram said.
Ram also received a running prosthesis through CAF, which was presented to him at a surprise fundraising event organized in his honor.
“I thought they were inviting a lot of challenged athletes, but when I got there, my whole extended family was there, and I was confused about that,” Ram said. “Halfway through, I noticed everyone knew my name, but I had no idea who they were. People were coming up to me and shaking my hand and getting pictures.”
At the end of the fundraiser, CAF presented Ram with his new running leg.
“I tried it out in front of everyone, and I realized afterward everyone was there to support me and didn’t even know me,” Ram said. “Only the CAF reps there knew me personally, but everyone else had just seen pictures of me and heard my story and still wanted to help me and donate money. That was really caring, and it made me happy to be a part of CAF.
“They have helped me financially, but also help to keep me motivated and keep that fire burning,” Ram added.
Returning to sports
The summer before he began high school, Ram decided that he would try out for the water polo team with his best friend. Although he had never formally swum before, he thought it would be a good option since, at the time, he had not received his running leg yet.
“I was always an athlete when I was little, and that was the one fear I had,” Ram said. “I didn’t want that to change. I didn’t want to just sit around. I wanted to be active again.”
During his freshman year, Ram wrestled for his high school team, but at the urging of his water polo coach, he joined the swim team during the winter season of his sophomore year.
“The first year I didn’t swim, which I regret a lot because I had no idea what the future of swimming would hold for me,” Ram said.
Although Ram admits that he hated the sport at first, he soon grew to love it once he started competing in meets. By his junior year, Ram had demonstrated significant improvement, and he started earning recognition for his achievements.
“I never wanted the spotlight, but being noticed was pretty cool,” Ram said. “Even though I wasn’t first or second place, a kid would come up and congratulate me and ask about my leg. I just felt happy about it, and it motivated me to get more competitive with swim.”
As Ram’s times continued to improve, he began looking for new challenges in swimming. During his senior year of high school, he competed in his first Paralympic competition in Los Angeles. Ram also joined a swimming club with a coach who is familiar with Paralympic swimming, which also helped him greatly improve his times.
“At the end of my junior year, I was swimming faster than ever,” Ram said. “But by my first meet senior year, I had already beat my times from junior year, because I joined that club.”
Ram recently earned his first National Paralympic qualification time, and he is currently focused on making the US Paralympic swim team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“In December, I will be competing in Canada at a Paralympic meet, and I am hoping that I will qualify for the National Paralympic team at that meet,” Ram said.
Ram’s best events include the 50-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke.
“The things that I’ve done after I lost my leg have been more exciting and better than when I had two legs,” Ram said. — by Megan Gilbride