A Different Race
by Grace MacNeir
“Keep going. Keeping going!” sixteen year old David Dawson chanted to the steady beat of his running shoes drumming on the pavement. He was completing his tenth mile and his legs were vibrating with fatigue. On the pitch black road, reflectors shone back at him as cars shot by. His mother’s warning echoed in his head. “David, I don’t want you running on the road at night. It is too dangerous! It isn’t worth the risk of getting hit!”
To David running the steepest curve laden road in Fairview, North Carolina even at night was worth the benefits. At this point David’s reasoning was over shadowed by one goal, to win the Cross-Country National Championship in Atlanta. He was running 85 miles a week to train for the five-kilometers race. Everything had become second to his goal – his family, friends, school, and his personal safety.
First, he saw the headlights stretching around the hair-pin curve. He tried to jump out of the way, but the blue car zoomed straight for him as if it was trying to run him down. Blinding light, screaming tires, and then darkness engulfed him.
A strong odor of disinfectant stung in his nose. He struggled to hear the murmuring voices but it seemed his ears were jammed with cotton. Slowly, he distinguished his mother’s relieved face bending over him.
“Where am I?” he croaked. Mrs. Dawson began to cry, then whispered two words. “ Car accident” The scene came flooding back. The lights, the scramble to escape, and then the cold blackness. Through his mothers tears, he half heard the words he thought would end his goal forever.
“You were in a accident... a drunk driver hit you. Your leg had to be amputated below the left knee. You’ve been in surgery for 12 hours. The doctors weren’t sure if you’d pull through.”
“This is impossible,” thought David. “I can still feel my leg. It’s there! It’s still there!” Once more he slipped from consciousness. Hours later he awoke.
“Thank God,” he thought. “It was only a dream.” His relief shrunk like a balloon popped with a pin when he saw the stump of his leg wrapped twice its size in bandages, cradled in a sling. It was not a dream. It was a nightmare. He looked wildly around the room searching for anything to draw his eyes away from his mutilated limb. He called out for his mother. She could do nothing to comfort him. For the next hour all David could do was sob as his mother smoothed his brown hair.
The hardest part of the weeks following the accident was not the intense painful physical therapy but phantom pain. David would feel pain where his leg had been. Often he would forget, and reach down to scratch his leg. Instead of connecting with his leg he would grasp thin air. Another chilling reminder of his loss was looking at the deflated side of the stark white hospital sheet when he sat in bed. While David was still in the hospital Coach Briggs, his cross-country coach, came to visit. When Coach Briggs walked in David instantly knew he had just come from practice. His black stop watch was swinging like a pendulum around his neck and he was wearing the same blue shorts and yellow shirt he religiously wore to practice. David would always remember his coach telling him he had six pairs of blue shorts, and yellow shirts. One for everyday he ran. Coach Briggs walked the short distance to the wooden chair beside the bed his running shoes squeaking on the spotless linoleum floor. An awkward silence clothed the room until Coach Briggs spoke, ”I just wanted to tell you that you will always be a runner.” David started to protest but stopped as Coach Briggs continued.
“A prosthetic has been developed that has helped other amputees start running again. It might work for you. It would take lots of hard work and tons of therapy but I think you could do it.”
“I will never be able to run again! Even if I could use prosthetic I wouldn’t have any balance! I would just fall over and make a fool of myself. It is better if I just never think about running again!”
Coach Briggs sighed and looked around the room full of IV cords and beeping machines. “There is nothing I can say to make you change your mind. But I do want to say one last thing. Feeling sorry for yourself is useless. What has happened is impossible to change. You can’t change your circumstances, but you can rise above them. Just like you rise above pain when you run a hard race.” Coach Briggs stood and left, the door clicked softly behind him.
“ He doesn’t understand! He doesn’t have a half a leg!” screamed David’s mind.
Tears poured from David’s eyes. When they hit it the bed the noise was strange. It was a hollow, popping sound. David looked down and there on his bed lay a tear-stained newspaper clipping. Bold, black headlines proclaimed, “Sixteen year old Brian Wilson wins Junior Olympics!” Under the headlines there was a picture of a tall boy hurling himself across the finish line. Below the picture a caption said, “Sixteen year old Brian Wilson, one of five hundred runners, won the National five mile race with a time of 15:03.” David gasped, his time for that course was a 14:59. His coach’s parting words sounded in his mind, “Feeling sorry for yourself is useless. Because what has happened is impossible to change. You can’t change your circumstances, but you can rise above them...” At that moment David knew that he could not allow his misery to conquer him. He had to fight it, just like he fought to win on the last stretch of every race.
Five months after surgery David was ready to try the prosthesis. After he become familiar with walking he began making small attempts to jog with the help of his coach and the permission of his doctor.
“One last lap! You can do it!” yelled Coach Briggs. David could feel the stump of his knee rubbing back and forth in the plastic brace breeding blisters despite the special sock. Teeth gritted with determination David pushed himself into his last lap. Soon he was sprinting in his signature, slightly uneven gate across the white finish line. A wall of agony slammed him so hard it almost took his breath. Coach Briggs ran over as David collapsed to the ground unable to put pressure on his leg.
“Are you okay David? Is your leg bothering you?” he asked. A disfigured mass of irritated sores was revealed when Coach Briggs gingerly peeled back the bloody sock. Teeth gritted David turned away. It felt as if Coach Briggs was pulling back the top layer of his skin.
“David! You should have told me! You shouldn’t be running on this leg! Do you want to get an infection?!”
“I just wanted to finish that lap. You told me too.”
“I also told you if there were blisters to stop and tell me. I want you to go home right now and clean up!”
“Okay,” consented David his head throbbing with pain.
The next morning the pain had not dulled, and even minus the sheet and blanket David was burning with fever.
“Honey, you need to get up,” Mrs. Dawson’s voice drifted through a wave of heat. Mrs. Dawson walked into his room, wall papered with pictures of famous runners. Beside his bed lay a running shoe and a prosthetic connected to a shoe. Both were in circled by crumbles of dry mud.
“David, are you all right?” Mrs. Dawson looked closer, David was laying on his bed too lethargic to speak. The sharp, familiar smell of disinfectant alerted David that he was back in the hospital.
“He has a staph infection,” a voice said. “It would of killed him if you wouldn’t of brought him in. We examined his leg and found multiple severely infected blisters. We believe this is how the staph infection first entered his body. Mrs. Dawson you should of cleaned his leg.”
“I didn’t know he had blisters, he never told me. He must of pushed himself too hard running this week.”
Guilt burned fiercer than the fever. But soon it was over whelmed by a foggy heat that enveloped his body like cloud of steam.
“His is fever has been too high for too long! If we don’t bring it down it could kill him,” said another voice not as calm as the last.
For the next week David was once again a prisoner of the hospital, his only companions were the television, bright cards heaped around his bed, and his mother who had been juggling a day and night job ever since his father left a year ago. Coach Briggs could not come see him because he was in Atlanta Coaching a cross-country meet. Soon David was back home but still to weak to practice.
“Mom please! Why can’t I run? It isn’t fair!” Yelled David his loud voice consuming the tiny but clean kitchen.
“I don’t want you back in the hospital. The same thing might happen! I can’t have you in the hospital again!”
“Mom, the only reason they got infected is because I didn’t clean them, or listen to the doctor and Coach Briggs! It wasn’t because of running!” protested David.
“No, David! You will not run. You almost died from that infection! If I lose you I won’t have anyone left!”
“I won’t make that mistake again. I promise. Please don’t take running away from me. When I first lost my leg I made a promise to not allow self pity or pain to win. If you take running away from me now, then I lose. Before I lost my leg I let running consume my life. Now I know how important the other parts are. But running is still really important to me!” David pleaded.
Months later blisters were replaced with tough callouses and the over whelming pain eased to a tender throb. It was five months after his staff infection when David finally was able to run his first race.
“David! David!” yelled Coach Briggs motioning from behind a green, chain link fence. So far today was the hottest day of the summer. David felt as if the sun had fallen from the sky and was sliding down his shirt. Despite the heat, he smiled. The small diamond on his mothers new wedding band was glinting in the sunlight. On her shoulder rested Coach Brigg’s arm. On his ring finger a new, gold wedding band shone also.
“Ok,” said Coach Briggs his green eyes staring into David’s blue. “I’ve given this pep talk more times than I can count. But I can’t think of one time that was more important than now. If you run as well as you did in practice than you can make the National record for paraplegics. I know you have the ability. But me knowing won’t help you win. You have to be the one that has the goal.” David smiled without saying a word. He could not think of ones that would sound right. As he walked away, he suddenly turned and said, “Thanks Dad.” Coach Briggs gave him a big thumbs up and a tear slid down his mother’s cheek.
As David lined up with all the other runners, he glanced down to check if his orange and black running shoe on his now familiar prosthetic was tied. All boys moved into start position their calf muscles tense with anticipation. The gun exploded but David did not really notice. Once more, David’s breathing matched the now lopsided rhythm of his strides. He did not hear the cheering crowds and he did not feel the burning sun. David ran not only for the national record, he ran to fulfil a dream he thought had died. A dream that he had now brought back to life.