Born Athlete Overcomes Physical Challenges to Win 2009 Courage Award
The son of a University of Florida football player and sprinter, Eric Anderson Jr. always wanted to play sports. The fact that he was born without a fully developed left leg never got in his way. Over the years, he excelled at T-ball, baseball, basketball and football. He served as captain of his 8th-grade baseball team and is now a valued member of Gilmour Academy’s freshman basketball and baseball teams.
Eric’s determination earned him the admiration of his teammates, parents, coaches and medical team at Cleveland Clinic and led to his receiving the 2009 Cleveland Clinic Courage Award. The award recognizes exceptional student athletes who face difficult medical challenges with courage and determination.
A brave heart
“I had no doubt Eric would do well. Any child who could go through the significant surgical procedures that we put him through without a complaint was going to do well,” says Cleveland Clinic pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Alan Gurd, MD.
Dr. Gurd first examined Eric as a baby and told the family he could try to lengthen Eric’s shorter leg or amputate the lower portion of the leg and fit him with a prosthesis.
The Andersons opted for leg-lengthening. At age 5, Eric was fitted with an external device that allowed him to lengthen his tibia (shinbone) with the turn of a screw. Each turn was exquisitely painful.
Over the years, Cleveland Clinic prosthetists fitted Eric with multiple orthotic devices to support and align his foot and leg. However, Eric never gained good use of his foot. When he turned 10, Dr. Gurd recommended amputation.
“The hardest decision that any parent can make is to agree with me to have part of the leg removed, because it can never be put back on again,” he says.
The Andersons discussed it as a family. “My dad told me, ‘Make a pro and con list,’” says Eric. “It just seemed like getting the amputation was so much better.”
His mom was surprised by the main motivation: “It was all about sports! ‘Am I going to be better?’ ‘Am I going to be faster?’ ‘Is this going to give me better mobility?’” she recalls.
Eric’s leg was removed below the knee. Two months later, a prosthesis was designed to fit over the end of Eric’s leg, the first of several that would be specially fabricated to meet the young athlete’s needs. When he outgrew the prosthesis, he was fit with a new design that allowed him to play basketball and accommodated the demands of various other sports. Eric also underwent physical therapy to improve his walking gait and to learn how to run and jump.
No stopping him now
Now nearly 15, Eric returns to Cleveland Clinic from time to time for adjustments to the prosthesis. However, he does not consider himself disabled, and neither does anyone else.
Gilmour basketball coach Kenneth Grant recalls that “when we first had our tryouts, an hour and a half went by before I realized Eric was wearing a prosthetic leg. I was in awe, because he did everything I asked him to do, at a higher level.”
Says Mrs. Anderson: “I’m overwhelmed by just his attitude, his courage, his impact on others. People tell us all the time what a role model he is. I guess we take it for granted, but I am so proud.”
Published April 2009