Next month, Beacon Children’s Hospital will celebrate five years of delivering expert care, close to home in its current location. So we are shining a spotlight on some of our inspiring patients, like Sam Grewe.
Sam Grewe, of course, isn’t glad that he developed cancer at age 13 and lost his leg from the knee down as a result.
Aside from the trauma of losing half a limb, just about any cancer survivor will tell you that the entire experience is frightening and stressful. Even if the prognosis isn’t terminal, the patient often fears the unknown about how their life will change. There’s the nausea and weakness from chemotherapy. Sam missed lots of school because of treatments and could no longer play the school sports that he so loved. He would ultimately spend many extra hours studying and working out to catch up with what he lost both physically and academically.
But Sam also has become an international inspirational figure since finishing treatment for his cancer at Beacon Children’s Hospital, and said he has struggled with how to phrase his feelings about it.
“I think it boils down to my belief that I am a better person today — stronger, more mature, better perspective on life, more driven — because of the hardships that I’ve overcome,” Sam said. “So, I’m not glad that I got cancer, but I am glad and proud of the way that I handled the obstacles and the setbacks.”
The 23-year-old Middlebury native is in his first year of medical school at the University of Michigan after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. He credits the care he received at Beacon for his inspiration to study medicine.
“I really just appreciate their hard work and the dedication they put into caring for their patients,” Sam said of his care team at Beacon.
Specifically, he mentioned Dr. Colleen Morrison, pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Beacon Children’s Hospital. They stayed in touch long after he left the hospital.
“She’s played a big role in my pursuit of a career in medicine,” he said. “She is an important person in my life and I was excited to let her know that this was the path that I am taking.”
Not ready to quit
Sam also found a new way to compete in athletics. Doctors presented two options after diagnosing him with osteosarcoma, an aggressive, highly malignant bone cancer. He could save his leg by having the fist-sized tumor removed and his knee replaced with an artificial one. His leg would appear largely the same and he would be able to walk just fine, but he could never again compete in sports, or even run much, because the artificial knee would be so fragile.
Sam’s parents, Randy and Michelle Grewe, initially favored this option but ultimately agreed to let Sam, not ready to forever give up athletics, choose the second alternative: a rare partial amputation called rotationplasty. Doctors removed his knee and turned Sam’s lower leg around so his foot faced backwards when reattached. His ankle became his knee, his foot became his shin, and Sam wears a prosthetic lower leg.
Sam had played lots of football, baseball, basketball and gymnastics growing up. Michelle said sports had always come easy for him. But he never had tried track and field. Then one day while his son was recovering from his surgery, Randy discovered that he could try the high jump with his prosthetic foot, competing against other athletes with disabilities.
Sam gave it a shot. By 2016 he was competing for Team USA in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, taking a silver medal, and in 2020 he won a gold medal at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
In Tokyo, shortly after he arrived at the track to compete, he was handed a letter from a local Japanese man, Masaki Kando. The man wrote that his 13-year-old son, Haruki, had the same rotationplasty performed after developing the same type of cancer, also in his right knee, at age 10.
“Even though I knew the details of the rotationplasty surgery, I was very anxious because there was misinformation about its after function in Japan,” the man wrote. “Meanwhile we found out about you. You gave us great courage to my family. We are grateful to you. My son is watching on TV today. We are all supporting you.”
Sam shared the letter on Twitter, tweeting, “Win or lose, this is what it’s all about. This makes it all worth it.”
Connecting the dots
In February, Sam inspired people again when he was chosen as a speaker at the University of Michigan’s annual TEDxUofM conference, where this year’s theme was “Shatterproof.” He modeled parts of the 13-minute speech after a 2005 Stanford University commencement address given by the late Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs. Sam told the audience what Jobs told those graduates: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”
In other words, when we are faced with an incredible challenge, we have no idea what new opportunities it might create.
Because of his athletic drive and ability before cancer, Michelle said she wasn’t surprised by his Paralympics success. But she never expected him to blossom as an inspirational figure and public speaker.
“He nailed it with his tone, with his pacing, his body language,” she said. “Everything just aligned to draw you in, and the standing ovation he got afterward was very well-earned. As a mom, I want everybody to see it because I’m so proud of him.”
After watching the talk, her mind flashed back to 2012, when the Notre Dame football team asked Sam to be an honorary team member. Her son then was a scared boy.
“He was very reluctant,” she said. “I can still picture him in the bed at Memorial Hospital when the reps from Notre Dame came. He was sick. He was bald. And he was a middle school kid. He just wanted to be left alone. It was scary. We drug him to agree to do it, hoping we were doing the right thing.”
Sam came to love his decision to accept the offer, giving him full access to the team’s activities during an undefeated regular season. Along the way, he’s done local and national TV news interviews, gradually becoming more comfortable.
“As a parent, there are times when you have to push your kid to try something, even though they’re saying they don’t want to do it, but you know it’s the right thing to do,” Michelle said. “I’m so thankful that he took those opportunities and grew from them.”
Without the cancer, Michelle figures Sam would have excelled in high school sports, hoping for a college scholarship and likely earning a bachelor’s degree somewhere.
“That all would have been great but I don’t think this reaching beyond what my expectations were would have happened without the cancer diagnosis and the loss of his leg,” she said.
Sam said being able to receive chemotherapy and other treatments close to home at Beacon Children’s Hospital, rather than having to drive to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, was “huge for me and my family.”
“My parents could come regularly and not have to drive four hours down to Riley,” he said. “It also gave my other family members a chance to visit.”
It also enabled him to be home faster after treatments.
“Especially after chemo, feeling nauseous and weak, I didn’t want to have to jump in a car and take a long ride to come home,” he said. “The team that got me back into good health is a huge reason I’m able to do the things I do today.”