Nobody Puts Avery In The Corner
Everything about Avery Anderson is what you would expect from a 14-year-old freshman girl. She smiles incessantly, her mom and dad need to remind her to finish her homework, she calls her two dogs (Ginger and C.C.) her sisters, and she likes to watch This is Us (especially Kevin The Manny), The Bachelor and The Goonies movies. And then there is the little thing about her not having any feet.
Avery is a very rare 14-year-old girl. Only one child in 100,000 is born with the birth defect fibular hemimelia and bilateral fibular hemimelia. That distinction alone, having been born with no fibula bone in either leg, only seven toes, and legs as crooked as the Missouri River, makes Avery unique. Add to those stats that Avery runs cross country on two prosthetic legs for Battle High School's girls' varsity team in Columbia, Missouri and you have a young lady who is rarer than steak tartare.
Born on Halloween 2004, Ken and Jennifer Anderson were overjoyed to meet their new baby girl. Once it was determined Avery had fibular hemimelia and would not be able to walk, the Andersons sought expert medical advice as to what were their options.
Avery had tibial osteotomy surgery at the age of ten months to straighten her legs in hopes she would be able to walk. While the surgery successfully straightened her limbs, her feet remained pointing downward and were unable to support her.
"It was a difficult time for us as a family," said Avery's father Ken. "Here is our infant daughter and we are having to make decisions that will likely affect whether or not she will ever be able to walk."
After dismissing a second opinion from a doctor who was not optimistic, Ken and Jennifer took Avery to the Shriner's Hospital in Minneapolis. There they met with the Chief of Staff and formulated a plan to fit their now 18-month-old daughter with unconventional prosthetics to allow her to walk.
"The doctors at Shriner's in Minneapolis stressed to us that this was not a permanent fix," recalled Ken. "We understood that this would merely get Avery to the age of three or so. We knew we would have to make a more permanent decision down the road."
At first the unconventional prosthetics were uncomfortable on little Avery but she soon ditched running around the house on her knees for the spindly prosthetics. "She was quickly walking like crazy," laughed Ken.
As Avery grew her feet got bigger, and the temporary fix was obviously not going to work much longer. "After Avery turned three, that's when the decisions got really tough for me and Jen," said Ken. "Making the decision to amputate your three-year-old daughter's two feet is not one any parents are equipped to make."
With guidance from the doctors and staff at Shriner's Hospital in St. Louis, Ken and Jennifer made the decision to amputate Avery's feet to allow her a chance to have more conventional prosthetics as she grew into a young girl and eventually an adult.
"We thought having the surgery at the age of three would be best," said Ken. "At that age, once she got older, she would not remember the pain and rehab that she had to endure."
"I can't say enough about the Shriner's," said Ken. "What a tremendous organization." The Shriner's whole purpose is to help kids with orthopedic conditions and other severe life-altering medical issues like burns or spinal injuries, regardless of the patients' ability to pay.
"When her casts came off and Avery saw that she did not have feet, she was scared," recalled Ken. "She didn't want anyone to touch her amputated feet. After about six weeks she was fitted for conventional prosthetics. Once they arrived, she got used to learning to walk with them, just like any kid learns to walk - holding onto furniture and struggling to get up when she fell down."
Avery hasn't looked back. As a matter of fact, she hardly considers her prosthetic legs a handicap. She doesn't think about what she cannot do, rather she wants to test her ability to do the things she can.
"I tried soccer," said Avery. "But I just wasn't quick enough to make those stops and starts. It takes me a little longer to change direction than most girls."
A teacher at Lang Middle School in Columbia, Mr. Casey, convinced Avery to give cross country a try. Avery's mom, Jennifer, is an avid runner who has run 15 marathons including Chicago multiple times and NYC. So, Avery was well aware of what the sport of distance running was all about.
"I liked the thought of running cross country because while it is a team sport, it is very much an individual sport as well. In cross country, my teammates and team wouldn't be affected by my inability to get to the ball like in soccer. No one has to depend on me to make a play, but I still get to be on the team and all the fun things that come with being a teammate."
Avery finds cross country difficult. "It's challenging," said Avery. "I like the practices, running with my friends and all the stuff after the race more than the race itself."
"I was so nervous before my first high school race in Liberty last Saturday. My coach told me he was going to have me run in the varsity race against all these really fast girls! And I'm only a freshman in my first race! All of us freshmen girls were nervous. I tried to block everything out and just run my race. That course (Wildflower at Liberty North High School) was really hilly! I just wanted the race to be over!"
Sounds like just about every other cross-country runner who has ever nervously awaited the starter's pistol, right?
Avery had a new pair of Nikes for the race but she decided at the last minute to run in her old workout shoes. "I didn't want to get my new shoes dirty," she explained.
She finished last in the girls' varsity race at the Tim Nixon Invitational, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who came away thinking Avery is in any sense a loser.
How does Avery feel about being the kid in the race with two artificial legs?
"I think it's kind of cool when people come up to me and say that they are inspired by me being out there racing on prosthetic legs," said Avery. "I am a slow runner and usually way back in the pack, but if I can be an inspiration to people, that's pretty cool."
"Anytime I see her run I get emotional," said her mom, Jennifer. "We have always preached to her that her condition is not an obstacle. We don't treat her any different than a daughter with two normal feet."
"We don't take much for granted when it comes to Avery and our family," said Ken. "We are very open about saying, 'I love you.' We are a close family."
Standing behind the rope at the start of her daughter's first race last Saturday in Liberty, MO, Jennifer thought back to her only child's birth.
"I got a little teary eyed," recalled Jennifer. "You think back to this little baby and how worried we were about all the things she might never be able to do or experience. And now she can do it all."
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