Tough to the bone
Nate Raver was skateboarding – leaping for a four-stair ollie – when he fell and bumped his leg, just below his right knee.
The 10-year-old Spokane boy could still walk, but the leg hurt. And the pain wouldn’t go away.
He was in so much pain that Raver, a kid who loved skateboarding above almost all else, couldn’t set foot on his board.
“My parents knew I wasn’t faking it,” says Raver, who’s now 12.
In fact, he had a tumor growing in his leg, right where he’d smacked it.
A biopsy revealed that the shaggy-haired, skateboard-loving kid had osteosarcoma, a cancer that strikes growing bone.
Surgeons removed the cancerous bone, the first of a dozen operations to come, and within days he was starting an eight-month course of chemotherapy.
“How many times did you throw up that week?” his mom, Christal Raver, asks.
“Thirty-two times,” her son says.
He spent 15 to 20 days each month in the hospital for treatments. And, in between, he had to face fevers, nosebleeds, yeast and staph infections and strange rashes.
“We’ve thrown a lot of crap at him,” says Dr. Andrew Howlett, Raver’s orthopedic surgeon. “He is very resilient. He has a good attitude. We’ve had to give him bad news a lot of times. … He’s a tough old gun.”
But even after surviving chemo and all of its nasty side effects, Raver’s ordeal wasn’t over. The leg simply wouldn’t heal.
In some cases, a piece of the patient’s own bone can be put in place of the cancerous bone. But the section of Raver’s bone that was removed was much too large for that. So Howlett put in a piece of cadaver bone.
The cadaver bone bcame infected and had to be taken out. So Howlett inserted an antibiotic-filled cement spacer to clear up the infection.
And then he needed to put in a new cadaver bone. But the thin skin covering Raver’s shin still would not heal.
Ten or 15 years ago, it was standard practice to amputate in these cases, Howlett says. In Raver’s case, “he would’ve had an amputation above his knee. That’s a big burden,” the doctor says.
Raver had to take antibiotics around the clock. He couldn’t shower, much less go swimming.
There was always the fear that maybe the wound would never heal; that maybe he’d lose his leg. He saw it happen to other kids in the hospital.
“There was the amputation factor,” Raver says. “And I was freaking out.”
To make matters worse, all of the surgeries and follow-up visits had to be done in Seattle, where Howlett practiced before coming back to his hometown, Spokane, six months ago.
Raver missed his entire fifth-grade year at Roosevelt Elementary School.
“I didn’t realize how much I liked school,” he says.
Raver underwent his last operation at the end of January. Surgeons sliced open the back of his leg to pull more skin to the front.
And, finally, his massive wounds are healing. He doesn’t need antibiotics anymore. He can get his leg wet again. He got to take his first real shower on March 9.
To celebrate, the family is headed for Hawaii in just a few days.
He still can’t put more than 20 pounds or so on his leg, so he’ll walk with crutches for some months.
From the outset of Raver’s diagnosis, his mom made some rules.
The first: There would be no dwelling on “Why me?”
“You learn how to buck up really fast,” Christal Raver says.
The second: Get out of the hospital whenever you can. Try to keep life as normal as possible.
They would regularly get a pass out, even just for an hour or two for lunch, even if they had to lug all sorts of medical equipment with them. He got passes to get out and see a monster truck show and skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Raver is articulate, mature beyond his years. During his treatment, he kept abreast of every drug he was on and every procedure being performed.
“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid, who could handle it, work through it and beat it,” his mom says.
Bur he couldn’t help but be disappointed when his doctor gave him a list of approved activities.
“Social dance and pingpong,” is how Raver boils it down.
No skateboarding. Not now. Not ever. The bone’s just too weak.
So, about four months ago, he had his dad, Tim, start teaching him to play the guitar.
“I knew I was going to have to do something,” Raver says.
And he’s getting pretty good.
It may not be skateboarding. But at least he has his leg. And his life.