The pinnacle of pain
Zach Haddan can walk.
Generally that’s not a profound statement about an athlete competing at the regional track meet in Grand Junction today. But less than a year ago, the Moffat County High School junior didn’t know whether he would ever live up to that statement again.
Actually, a year ago, he didn’t know much of anything that was going on around him.
“I was so drugged up, I’d be out for a week at a time,” he said. “I was out of my mind on pain killers and brain-numbing medication.”
May and June of 2004 was the bottom of the bottom for Haddan, who spent 19 months attempting to recover from what was initially a broken ankle suffered his freshman year in basketball practice.
That broken ankle didn’t heal like it was supposed to because of a syndrome that Haddan was diagnosed with two months after his injury.
Doctors told him he had Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSD or RSDS), also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). RSD is a chronic neurological syndrome in which the nerves around the injury send messages to the brain that postpones healing and causes extreme amounts of pain.
Eighteen surgeries, several perplexed physicians and hundreds, if not thousands, of painkillers later, Haddan underwent a procedure that cured him in July of 2004.
“I’m just happy I can walk,” he said, followed by a sigh of relief.
Zach Haddan can walk.
It sounds more profound now.
JUST 4-6 WEEKS
Haddan remembers the date without hesitation.
“January 15, 2003,” he said.
That was when he landed wrong on his right leg in a scrimmage of the freshman boys basketball team against the girls varsity team. He broke the ankle all the way through the growth plate.
“They don’t do that any more,” he said about the scrimmage.
He was told it would take four to six weeks for his ankle to heal.
After eight weeks, there were no signs of healing.
Soon his foot started to turn purple, he started experiencing a burning sensation.
He went to a pain-management specialist and was diagnosed with RSD.
The normal feeling in his leg was gone, and it was replaced with pain. He missed all of the fourth quarter of school his freshman year because of the pain and the treatments he was undergoing.
Once a week, he would travel to Steamboat Springs for surgery. Doctors would stick 16-inch needles in his back to deaden the nerves to his leg. Then they would stimulate the leg to try to get it to respond again.
He underwent that procedure seven times in the spring and early summer of 2003.
“It was like I was paralyzed,” he said. “I knew my leg was there, but I couldn’t do anything with it.”
The surgeries, along with two hours of rehabilitation a day eventually brought feeling back to his leg during the summer.
Haddan played golf in the fall and basketball in the winter. But toward the end of the basketball season, his ankle started to bother him again.
The ankle still hadn’t fully healed and he needed reconstructive surgery.
Doctors prefaced the surgery by assuring the RSD wouldn’t be back.
“They said there was a one-in-one-billion chance it would come back,” he said.
If Haddan were 18, he should have bought a lottery ticket.
Within 24 hours of the surgery, the RSD had returned.
His pain-management specialist was perplexed.
“He was at a loss,” Haddan said.
To make things worse, physicians had to wait for the scars from the surgery to heal before any rehabilitation could start.
FOUR TIMES KILLER’
Not only had the RSD come back, but the pain also had intensified.
“It just kept getting worse,” Haddan said. “I thought the first time was bad, but this time, it was double, triple four times killer.”
To put the pain of RSD sufferers in perspective, the Web site http://www.rsdhope.org cites the McGill Pain Index register. The pain of childbirth registers at a 33, and having a digit amputated is a 39. RSD registers at a 41.
“I felt like I had my foot in a stove constantly,” he said. “My leg was so hypersensitive that when my mom would open the door the wind from it would kill my leg.”
That kind of pain was why Haddan was “out of my mind on pain killers.” He was prescribed Vicodin and another medication used to numb the brain and keep it from communicating with the leg.
“There were weeks on end that I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
After his ankle was healed enough, he continued to go to Steamboat for the weekly treatments, but things weren’t getting better. His treatments and constant pain caused him to miss all of the fourth quarter of school again.
In the spring of 2004, the Haddans started to seek out other doctors who might help.
“After about the fifth doctor said I wouldn’t walk again, I started to worry,” Haddan said. “I was scared to death I’d be in bed forever.”
WATCHING HIM SUFFER
Throughout the ordeal, Haddan’s family — his dad, John; mom, Vicki; and brothers, J.T. and Colby — were there for Zach. And, just like for Zach, their hardest time was in May and June of 2004.
“We were the ones who had to watch him drool and stutter,” Vicki said. “Once they explained to me that his pain was worse than childbirth, I couldn’t comprehend. I only had to go through that for three hours, and he was constantly in worse pain.”
There wasn’t much they could do but encourage and keep searching for a way to stop the pain.
“There were times when he wanted to give up, but they were short,” Vicki said. “He kept fighting.”
While Zach got temporary relief when he passed out, the family always was there waiting and watching.
“We took turns being strong,” his mom said. “When things seemed bleak for me, John would be there.”
Vicki said that the school district (she and John work in the district) and the church the family attends were important to helping the family.
“They were so supportive,” she said. “Members of the church would come and pray with us … the school district collected money to help, and we were allowed to be flexible in our schedules.”
Jeff Pleasant, a physical therapist at Rehabilitation Services of Craig, oversaw Zach’s rehabilitation during the entire process.
He said there were times when he could barely handle seeing Haddan suffer.
“It became very personal,” he said. “It hurt to watch him. When he put his foot on the floor, it was like he was stepping on a bed on needles.”
Haddan’s file is thicker than the entire letter sections in Pleasant’s files.
“The thing reads like a dictionary,” Pleasant said.
After trying seemingly every doctor in the region, the Haddans found Dr. Doru Ion-Emil Georgescu, a surgeon in Denver. Georgescu informed them that a last-resort procedure might help Zach. But he cautioned them that it also could permanently paralyze Zach because the surgery involved making cuts along the spinal cord.
“If he made a mistake by millimeters, he said I would lose the use of my legs,” Zach said. “It wasn’t a concern to me at the time because I couldn’t feel one of my legs anyway.”
His family considered the consequences in more detail.
“I originally didn’t want to because it was the odds were 50/50 ,” Vicki said. “But John said, ‘if the door is there, we have to walk through it.'”
In the second week of July 2004, Dr. Georgescu performed a lumbar sympathectomy, in which he went in through the stomach and cut the sympathetic nerves that go to Zach’s legs.
“It was a high-risk, high-payoff surgery,” Zach said. “But I woke up four hours later, and my foot was fine.”
‘USE YOUR MIND’
After the surgery was over, Haddan started rehabilitation again.
“I had no calf muscle,” he said. “I wanted to get back to sports.”
He told basketball coach Mike LeWarne that he would be back for his junior year.
Dr. Georgescu didn’t think it would be a good idea.
“(Georgescu) kept saying ‘Use your mind,'” Vicki said. “He didn’t want Zach to play sports, but once Zach walked, I could see there would be no holding back.”
Dr. Georgescu was cautious because the procedure he performed was a last-resort. With the nerves cut, there would be no chance for Zach to heal ever again.
“He made a huge life decision for somebody so young,” Pleasant said. “He knows that one little thing could keep him from walking the rest of his life. It’s something he’ll battle forever.”
Still, Pleasant was there for Zach’s first running steps.
“The happiest day was when he was back on the treadmill for the first time,” Pleasant said. “The entire clinic stopped.”
Vicki, Zach’s track coach, has her heart stop every time Zach jumps.
“As a coach, you want to push kids hard, but it’s hard for me to do that for him,” she said. “Most parents and coaches usually enjoy watching. But I constantly worry about him.”
Zach isn’t devoid of worries either.
“It’s always there,” he said. “Every time I do something active, whenever I stop, I think ‘whew, I didn’t break anything.'”
Fears don’t stop him though.
“I love sports, and I can’t see myself not playing,” he said. “I was off-the-wall happy once I could play again. Maybe the happiest person ever.”
He golfed in the fall, started on varsity in basketball and is a field-event specialist in track. He is also two weeks from finishing his first fourth quarter of school in three years.
“I was only about 70 to 80 percent in basketball, but I was playing,” he said. “I didn’t have extremely high expectations, but I wanted to do better.”
There have been three scares during this school year.
During the second week of basketball, he went down in a game against Summit.
“I’d never seen him go down because it was always in practice before,” Vicki said.
Pleasant received a call he hoped he never would.
“Coach LeWarne called and just said, ‘Zach,'” he said. “We shared some tears during that visit.”
Haddan had some discoloration but he recovered after two weeks. He had one more injury in basketball and in track. Each time, the recovery has been faster.
“There’s no way of telling, but I just hope that trend continues,” Pleasant said.
Financially, the whole process has drained the Haddans because so many of the procedures were experimental.
“It will take a long time to catch up,” Vicki said. “We had to use the money we had saved for Zach’s college, but that’s OK, it was there for him.”
When Vicki is asked about how they found Dr. Georgescu and about Zach’s recovery, she can find only one way to explain.
“It was the grace of God,” she said. “There’s no other reason.”
The family didn’t keep any photos from the two years.
“I don’t want to remember,” Zach said. “I’m just glad it’s over, and I don’t want to mope about it. It was terrible”
Zach Haddan can walk … and run and jump.
That’s about all he wants to think about now.
David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or email@example.com.
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