I am asked all the time how I lost my leg and in all honesty I find that question harder to answer than you would assume. Most amputee’s have a less complicated story, diabetes, an accident, or another more sudden traumatic experience that lead to the loss of one or more limbs. I have been able to come up with a few different ways to share my experience because I segregate people into different categories: The complete Strangers, People I know from my past, Older Friends I rarely see, and the rest are my current friends and family who obviously have a pretty good idea most of the time (more on that later).
The more that I think about what led me to where I am today, the further that I have to go back in life to see all the decisions I made, and all the situations that I was faced with. So it only makes sense to start at the very beginning with all the details I can think of!
My name is Chris Garner, I was born on September 8 1979 to Andrew and Judy Garner in Niagara Falls, ON CAN. I was the 2nd of 2 children in my house, my older brother Michael was born in 1977. My parents separated and divorced when I was 6 and both remarried before I turned 9. My father and his second wife had 2 more sons, my half brothers Matthew and Mark however that was not a long lasting relationship and shortly after that ended he met who I considered my step-mother – Sharon. My mother met her 2nd husband, a Police Officer named Paul who had 2 children already that became my step brother and step sister. Growing up was a fairly normal and an uneventful childhood. I spent a lot of time with family, and to this day remain very close with a lot of my cousins. I met my best friend when I was in grade 3, who I am so very lucky to say that to this day, Westley still remains my best friend.
I played a few sports growing up, mostly house league hockey, but I did try soccer one season. My last season playing hockey was when I was 12 years old, mostly because I was not developing physically enough to be able to play the game safely – at 12 years old I was 4 ft 8 and 67 pounds. In school I rarely participated in school team sports, but in high school I was able to play on the Volleyball team for one season as well. What I really seemed to be attracted to was Music. I had a knack for learning new instruments very quickly, and my understanding of music theory gave me an advantage learning the craft. I had found where I was to fit in socially for a majority of my life – the music scene. In high school I played with the School Concert Band, and I also formed a couple different “garage bands” with some friends. Sports were tossed to the side as musicians and “jocks” didn’t tend to associate with each other very much. Being a “band geek” didn’t really help my popularity in high school, being the smallest student in the school both for my first 2 years in high school, I had to rely on my older brother to ensure my survival. Mike and I were polar opposites, yet inseparable. He treated me like a dog treats his territory – no one was allowed to even look at me the wrong way with out him barking, and if I didn’t like how someone was treating me, he would show his bite as well.
After high school I went to college for Recording Engineering and Multimedia Production. I lived in Stoney Creek for 6 months while attending school, while working a full time job in Hamilton at Wal-Mart. One of my best friends Anthony was also going to a different college in the same area and worked with me at Wal-Mart. Having one of my best friends with me made the experience a great one. While I wasn’t as successful with my final marks as I was hoping, what I was able to take away from the course would benefit me for years to come.
After College I ended up getting a job in the Hospitality industry working at a resort in Niagara Falls. I quickly moved up the chain of command and was promoted to Supervisor before I was 21 years old. At the time, for a 21 year old to hold a management position at one of Niagara’s top resorts as well as playing in a full time band multiple times per week, I was really on a good run. It all came crashing down in 2002.
I was helping a friend by playing drums for a pit orchestra at a local church event. At the end of the night as I was tearing down my drum kit I twisted my knee and heard a pop. The pain wasn’t overwhelming, but it was to the point that after a few days of it not settling down, I went to the Emergency Room with my mom and step father to get it checked out. The old GNGH Hospital had a few ER Doctors that had a local reputation, and when I went in one of those Dr’s who was known for calling out patients BS happened to be on duty. I wouldn’t call her heartless, but if you had a cut and it didn’t need stitches, you might get cuffed upside the head for wasting her time (yes the 90’s were a different time). So I had my x-rays taken – again this being a different time we had to go to the other end of the hospital to a different department. After the images were taken, we had to wait for them to be developed and they then handed us a giant envelope with the images inside to take back to the ER Doctor. My step-father was a high ranking police office and had seen his share of injuries and x-rays, so as we were heading back to the ER, we detoured down the back hall ways, and he proceeded to take out the images. Holding one up to the light, the only thing he said was “I think you are in for a serious roller coaster ride Chris”. We got back to my room and the ER Doctor looked at the images – her comment “I am very worried about what I am seeing here”. Knowing her reputation, that scared me a lot. They were both correct, it was going to be a roller coaster ride and a very worrisome one at that.
The next 8 months was not a fun time of my life at all. I was referred first to a local orthopaedic surgeon who promptly looked at the image and said “This is way out of my league, you are headed to Hamilton”. In Hamilton I was very lucky to be seen by Orthopaedic Oncologist Dr. Nigel Colterjohn. His diagnosis was that I had a “Massive Osteochondroma and Secondary Chondrosarcoma”. I went through test after test, x-rays, ultrasounds, bone scans, MRI’s, CT Scans and more. Some of the tests were so painful they would leave me in tears. At the various appointments, as much as the surgeon tried to keep our emotions at bay, when he told us before the surgery that there was more than a small chance that I would lose my leg in the procedure, it took us slightly off guard. How much of a chance was I up against? He told us about a 30% chance I would wake up with out a leg. The Surgery was successful, I woke up and my leg was still attached to my body. The surgeon came in with a huge smile after saying how well the procedure went, he was able to removed the growths with out breaching them, and my bones while deformed from the tumor, were in tact. With in a few months I was back on my feet, working at the hotel and playing on stage.
In 2004, just a couple years later, a seed was planted in my brain – I’m young, single and have very little responsibilities, why not travel, why not go work on a cruise ship and see the world! So I did! In July of 2004 I went on to my very first airplane, all by myself flying from Toronto to Vancouver to board Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas for an 8 month contract. I left my job, my band my friends and my family to experience something that very few people will ever have a chance to do. I travelled from Vancouver to Alaska, to Hawaii, through the Panama Canal and around the Caribbean. I climbed a mountain in Alaska, went Sky Diving in Hawaii, went to the edge of a sulfur Volcano, and saw an active erupting Volcano with liquid magma flowing into the ocean. While on board, for the first time I fell in love. I met a girl from Montreal who signed on to the cruise ship as I had 3 months to go. It was best described as a fantasy romance – everything was perfect for the last 3 months of my time on board. When I signed off at the end of my contract, I had to leave my first love behind knowing that cruise life would consume her after I left. At the end of her contract I did go for a short visit in her home town, but it was clear that our Holiday romance was in the past.
A few months after settling in back home, back to playing with my band, back to working at the hotel and the monotonous day to day life had returned, it was in October that I was introduced to a girl that would eventually become my wife and mother of my children. With in a few months of meeting we were engaged to be married and the planning for the big wedding had begun. These plans were put on hold pretty quickly when we found out that Melissa was pregnant with our first child. It was a year after we had Jaiden that we did eventually get married on Cocoa Beach in Florida. In attendance was my best friend Westley and his Wife, the singer for my band Mike and his Uncle, as well as my partners father. Our relationship was never a rock solid one, but we fought hard. In 2009 we found out that only were we expecting our second child, but my brother and his fiancée were also expecting. My nephew Keenan was born at the end of July and my son Brennan was born at the end of September bringing our family to 5, my step Daughter Kayla had just turned 7.
On October 22, 2009 my entire world crashed. My brother, my protector passed away in his sleep at the age of 32. His son was 3 months old, and we had so many plans to raise our sons together. It was a very long time before I eventually came to terms with the loss of my brother, but definitely not before more tragedy in our lives. After Mike passed away, I was never the same, but over the next 2 years I had no idea how much more things could go bad. The time frames for when things happened have become inconsequential, however my wife’s mother had a series of strokes resulting in us being at her bedside as she passed away. My great Aunt Sylvia and her Husband my great Uncle Ted both passed away with in that time. My wife’s father started to become ill, and I became increasingly worried that he was not going to pull through, unfortunately we are not sure what the end cause of his passing was, but we are sure there was lung cancer was in play. To cap off the 2 years, I received a call one morning from my half brother Mark that our other brother Matthew had been murdered the night before, having been stabbed at a party. The amount of close family deaths in a short time took a toll on our relationship which was never the most stable to begin with.
We tried to work through the grieving process together, but it was very overwhelming. We decided that it was time that we parted ways, but still remained good friends at the time. My wife found an apartment and left the house to me. At this time I had changed careers, now working in the Concrete industry I was making a significantly better income than in hospitality. I was doing fairly well with the job as well. My good friend Anthony having been the person to break me into the job, and got me my first 2 jobs – first as a labourer with his Uncles company, then as a finisher with the regions largest independent contractor. Anthony had plans to break away from this company to form his own, and he was having me work with him on his own jobs. The following year he was planning on starting his own company, Everlast Concrete, and wanted me to be his first employee to work towards being his eventual foreman when the time came. I was very excited to be working with him and this was clearly an opportunity to bring my career to the next level.
It wasn’t long before this short-lived good run was about to end, but in a slightly more dramatic fashion than in the past. The concrete season had just ended, it was the start of November and I had started my Christmas shopping. While trying to walk around the Pen Center, my leg began hurting. The pain was not going away and the more I walked, the pain increased – this pain was extremely familiar. I was with my ex at the time, and I told her right then and there that I knew my tumor(s) had returned. How could I possibly know this with out an x-ray, she just did not think that this was the case. I went to get x-rays, and confirmed what I had feared that the Osteochondroma had returned. I knew what I was up against, I knew the tests that were to come, I knew there would be pain, and I knew that the result could not possibly be as good of an outcome as the last time. I had learned that the surgeon who saved my leg last time had passed away from a brain aneurysm in his office, so I was to be referred to one of his successors, Dr. Deheshi. Unfortunately, my life wasn’t done spiraling out of control. As a result of this news, I had to respectfully decline my friends offer to work with him the following season in concrete effectively ending the career that I was not only enjoying, but thriving in. My ex had started dating, which I thought at the time I was going to be ok with, that is until things started going wrong in my life. I had decided as Christmas was approaching that I wanted to be back with my wife, and work on things. 2 Days prior to Christmas, I was bringing my children to her house, and was confronted with her and a guy she had gone on a few dates with in an embrace, and something in my head snapped. Instead of dropping the kids off with her, I brought them to my moms dropped them off and in a full blown mental breakdown picked a direction to drive in and just went. I kept driving until I ran out of gas, and just as the tank was on fumes, picked an abandoned dirt road to turn down, went to the very end, turned my car off and just sat there. I would only answer text messages from Melissa, as I sat in tears – my life in shambles. I looked in my rearview mirror to see 2 police cars turn down the dirt road approaching me. I would later find out the only reason they found me was through tracking my cell phone as I continued to text my ex. I was brought in to St Catharines hospital on a 72 hour suicide watch – remember this being 2 days before Christmas. I effectively let a mental breakdown put me in a position that I would be in the Hospital on Christmas day instead of being with my kids.
I would like to say that this is where things started to get better but sadly its not. My wife and I tried to reconcile things, we moved back in together for some time, but there was always a rift between us. This time the process for my leg was different. I went in for surgery to have the tumor removed in the same way the last one was, however the surgeon this time was not nearly of the calibre as Dr. Colterjohn. The end result in his lack of experience was that the tumor was removed only by having my fibular bone shatter mid surgery. The 2 hour procedure ended up being 5 hours of cleaning up bone fragments. He put some sutures in place to try and stabilize the remainder of the bone and sewed me up. The pain following this procedure was increasing daily following the surgery. I was no longer physically able to work in concrete, so I made an attempt to work at a call center. This did not go well as the pain medication was increasing at regular intervals, and my ability to deal with the pain was declining. I was leaving early on a daily basis until both my employer and myself agreed that I would no longer be able to retain my employment successfully. I applied to be on Disability, and after a long process of being declined, appealing, being declined again and then having an in person hearing – I was approved.
My medical issues continued on, having a medial meniscus tear in my knee due to not having one of the bones to support it and surgery to repair that before learning that yet again, the osteochondroma had returned. The pain was increasing quicker than before, and it was at this time that I first asked about amputation. I knew in the past it was a possibility, but at this point I had no answers, and increasing pain. I asked at what point would amputation be a reality. Dr Deheshi at this point told me that he wanted to try removing the tumor again, and shorten the already shattered bone further. I went for 3 second opinions on the procedure and they all confirmed what I was thinking, that it would not fix the issues I was having. When I approached Dr Deheshi with this, he remained steadfast that he wanted to try his idea first and that if that did not work, amputation would be a consideration – however that being said, he also let me know that he was moving his practice to the Southern USA, and that while he would do that surgery, I would have to follow up with his successor and that it would be up to him at that point what the next step would be. I asked what his confidence in his procedure was, and his answer was that he wasn’t totally confident that it would fix my issues, but he felt it was worth a try. The way I interpreted that, was that he was willing to do a surgery on me that he wasn’t sure would work, and that I would be someone else’s problem if things didn’t go well. He also told me that if I was not accepting his treatment option than I would be on my own to find a surgeon who would treat me. He moved his practice a couple months later and I have never heard from his office again. I started the process at this point of finding a surgeon willing to take my case where I am already at the point of asking for an amputation. I was willing to listen to any suggestion to help end my pain, but every doctor I approached was unwilling to accept me as a patient.
Things still were not getting better, my pain was still increasing to the point that I peaked at 36 perc’s per day. I was also on nerve pain medication called Lyrica. Of any medication that I have ever been on, that one did more to affect my head and behavior. When I did eventually take myself off of it, after a couple of weeks I could feel a literal cloud lift off my head and my thoughts were clear again. It was around this time that tragedy struck in my life yet again. This time my step mother, after an 18 month battle with acute leukemia, she passed away. 6 weeks later, completely unexpected, my step father had a heart attack in his sleep and passed away, leaving both my parents widowed. At this point, my marriage was in complete shambles, there was constant fighting, financial woes were mounting as I was no longer able to work, and the medications I was on was affecting my behavior to the point I felt that it was time to end the relationship. The catalyst of my step father passing away was what it took for me to make the move away from my wife.
Following the initial grieving process, I was back fighting for my health. At the point I was adamant that amputation was going to be the only way that I would regain my quality of life. Research had led me to looking at a procedure called Osseointegration. It involved amputation and having a titanium implant put into the residual limb to which the prosthesis would be directly attached to. It was revolutionary, so much so that at the time it was only offered in a few locations globally. The leaders in this procedure were located in Australia and I reached out to them about my situation. After having a phone conversation with one of the surgeons, it was agreed that I was a prime candidate for this procedure. The kicker – because the procedure at the time was considered experimental, there was no medical coverage and the cost including travel would be over $120,000. I immediately started a funding campaign to start to raise the funds, reached out to some local media outlets and had some stories written on what I was going through and what I was trying to have done. The one thing that was required for Australia, was I needed to find a local orthopaedic surgeon to be their contact here for me. I had 3 more appointments at this point. The first did not go well, the doctor refused to accept the procedure as something that would be beneficial, and that he felt amputation was to dramatic for me to be asking – however he also refused to provide any suggestions as to what I could do to help my situation. The next appointment was in Toronto with Dr Ferguson at Mt Sinai.
Dr Ferguson was not convinced that Osseointegration was the best procedure for me, there were details discussed and some points were definitely valid. The one thing he did that none of the previous doctors did through, was tell me he was not going to let continue to suffer and he would take me as a patient. He would consider amputation, but wanted to enquire about a couple other ideas first. I was patient for about 3 months before contacting his office to say that I was now past the point of considering any other procedure. He had consulted with a few other doctors, and at this point we were in agreement that amputation would not put me in any worse condition, and while his confidence was not high that it would improve my quality of life he didn’t have any other answer for me – so the surgery was scheduled for July 25, 2018.
Immediately following surgery, when I woke up in the recovery room, my leg was gone – but the most amazing thing……the chronic pain that was increasing for 4 years non-stop……was gone. The sensation of what I was feeling was totally gone. I was in excruciating surgical pain, the nerve block was ineffective as they removed the nerve that they used for the block, but regardless of what I was feeling from the surgery, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. 24 hours later and we finally got control of the surgical pain, and I was totally overwhelmed with the thoughts of my future. I went from thinking I would never play with my children the same way again, never work a normal job, never play music or be social again to having so very many possibilities in front of me. I was not going to take this lightly, I had a lot of thoughts running through my head and as soon as I could get things going, I was going to take the world by storm.
What was first on my list? Well of course I wanted to get out there and show people how I was doing. There was a local charity event called Heaters Heroes that paired local celebrities and inspirational personalities with children who were /are battling cancer or other life threatening challenges. It was 17 days after my surgery, so my idea to help show these kids what some people are willing to do to help their cause was to go around a 400 meter track on my crutches. My sutures were still in, bandages still on, and I knew that regardless of how hard this was going to be, that these kids were fighting a battle significantly harder than anything I could do. It was an incredibly amazing experience, and the community feedback was surreal. I had decided that being a part of the community in this way was something that I was looking forward to being a part of.
The next major thing that I wanted to do, was try Sledge Hockey. One of my mentors through my surgery had told me that there was a learn to sledge program in the region that I should try. So thats exactly what I did. When I first got on the ice, I was so excited to fall all over the place. I could barely go 10 ft with out tipping over. I couldn’t control the puck, and I was absolutely exhausted after. I loved every minute of it! I came back over and over and my learning curve increased dramatically as my motivation continued to rise. I was lent a sled that was better than the arena sleds, and arranged ice time that was closer to my house. I kept practicing over and over on my own, not having any idea if I was good, bad or if I would ever develop to the point of playing on a team. I was approached by the local teams coach, Paul, who told me he was very impressed with how far I had come in a short time. He kept coming out to watch me practice, and gave me a lot of encouragement. Then he asked if I would be willing to play for his team the next season. I thought – what do you mean willing to, of course!! Maybe I was getting better at this sport that I had thought. I mean, I was having a lot of fun getting active again. I hadn’t played any sport since high school, and I was in horrible shape, but ya I would totally be interested in playing for a team! What became even more exciting, was as the season was approaching, Paul came to me and asked if I had any interest in trying out for the regional team for the Provincial Championships. I had never played in a game before, never practiced with a team, and had no idea how I would compare to other players, and I was being invited to try out for an elite level team. Of course I accepted the try out offer and on November 1, 2019 I went to the Cruiser Cup to try out for Team Ontario West for the 2020 Ontario Winter Games in Orillia. I got to the tournament and went to the dressing room, and made sure to let people know how “green” I was. I had no idea what I was up against. Thankfully I had previously met a couple people already so the dressing room was very welcoming. I felt as if I had a great practice, coach put me on the first Penalty Kill Unit with 3 players that outclassed me so much it was almost funny. Amazingly I didn’t feel as far behind them as I thought I would be, and in fact I was noticing that I was keeping pace with everyone else on the ice. I learned that one of the players is a former National Team player, and that at the end of practice, was informed that I had made the team alongside some unreal talent.
As I was getting off the ice, I was approached by my coach and another team from North Bay asking if I was able to play in the tournament for their team as they were short benched. I was able to get ahold of one of the other players on the local team to bring me some things I needed from home, and the two of us played in the tournament, this being my first game experiences. We won 3 games and lost 1 before I had to go home before the end of the tournament. The team from North Bay had nothing but amazing things to say about me. They were extremely impressed that these were my first games, and proceeded to pump my tires up more and more. It was a great feeling, an entire room of athletes that have been playing a sport for years, all telling me how amazing I am, and how many opportunities I am going to have because of it. This was all so surreal, I had my leg amputated 15 months prior to this, I didn’t have any idea where my life was headed, but I could never have guessed this was the direction. After the tournament, our local team The Niagara Thunderblades season was finally ready to get started. I was told at the tournament to not get used to winning games, as our team was more of a drinking team with a sledge hockey problem. I asked how the season went last year, and was told they only had 1 win, which was from a forfeit, the previous season they won 1 game in a tournament, but the last 2 seasons thats all. Regardless of that, I felt as if it was going to be a lot of fun. As of mid-February, with 2 games left in the season we are 4-4, one loss being a forfeit. We played in the London Tournament going 3-0 in the round robin before losing in the semi-finals. During the London tournament, as we were warming up for the 2nd game, coach called me to the bench to introduce me to a gentleman from the Men’s National Development team who would be watching my game. I am very well aware that my skills are not near enough for that level, and combing that with my age, it was never a real possibility that I would be given an invitation, but it was a huge motivational boost for me to know that I was playing in my rookie season, and that legitimately I was being looked at for my play at the National level. I always have the mind set that I want to “Defy The Odds” and I will follow any opportunity that is presented to me, so I will continue to see where this sledge hockey journey takes me and continue to work as hard as I can in the mean time.
Sitting Volleyball was introduced to me in April 2019 at the Niagara Para Sport Conference. I attended the conference because after trying sledge hockey, I was very interested in seeing if there was other Para Sports that I would have a knack for. I tried a few different things at the event, but gravitated towards sitting volleyball. A gentleman named Joe was watching me play around and asked if I had ever played before. I said no, and gave him a quick breakdown of my story. A couple weeks later I received an e-mail from him asking if I was available to come to Toronto to assist with a demonstration for sitting volleyball at the National Volleyball Championship Tournament. I would be playing alongside with some of the members of the Sitting Canucks – Canadas National Sitting Volleyball team. To fall in line with how I have been doing things, I am taking every opportunity presented to me – so I went. This was the 2nd time I even tried the sport, and I was now in Toronto practicing with members of the National Team. Again, something I had no business being at as an athlete, but something that was truly amazing. I have since continued to play the sport with the local team the Brock Niagara Penguins and am regarded as a leader on the team. I am hoping to be invited to the National Try Outs this year after the team completes it pre-Paralympic qualifier tournament.
During the summer of 2020, with limited activities available, I was able to get in to Para Golfing. Golf is a sport that I am able to compete against other amputee’s as well as able bodied people. On the surface most people would think that the person with one leg on the golf course might not have the best swing, or play the best game. I have been finding my game, and joined Para Golf Ontario. The 2020 Ontario and Canadian Championships have been cancelled, but I do have hopes to compete at a high level in both those tournaments. I also will be looking into the National Adaptive Long Drive team, where Team members are required to be able to drive the ball 250+ yards consistently.
As of July 25 2020, I am 2 years post operation from my amputation. I have already had 1 revision surgery and still am dealing with complications. I am having prosthetic fit issues, my residual limb continues to change shape, I am still growing boney masses that are interfering with my fit. I was recently approved to have a surgery called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation(TMR) to remove a neuroma as well will be having another bone growth removed. I am not totally off my medications yet, and still rely on crutches to walk. With all that, my quality of life has improved so much regardless of the challenges I am faced with now. I know that I am going to continue to work on getting healthier, even if it means more procedures to get there, I know that there is still another level for me. I know that through Para Sports that I have an opportunity to share my story on a larger scale, and that I have the responsibility to show other people with physical disabilities that there are possibilities out there that are way beyond your comfort level that can make a dramatic change in your life. Get out there and interact with people, ask questions, and it can make a huge difference in your daily life.
My name is Chris Garner and I will Defy The Odds!