Friday, August 26, 2016

MGH patient pursues Paralympic gold in Rio

SAILING FREE: Freund, Kendell and Doerr train to compete in the three-person keelboat competition in the Paralympic games in Rio.

A young sailor from Maine will compete with his team for a gold medal in the Paralympic sailing events in Rio de Janeiro.

Hugh Freund, 28, who lost his lower leg to cancer as a teenager, will race for the U.S. Sailing Team along with two other disabled athletes as part of a team in the Three-Person Keelboat (Sonar) event, which begins Sept. 12 and concludes on Sept. 17 with the medal race.

Freund’s doctors at the MGH Cancer Center removed his right leg when he was 19 to save him from a sarcoma tumor in his ankle bone. They treated his cancer with drugs that have left him cancer-free for nearly nine years.

“MGH gave my life back to me,” says Freund, who was diagnosed as a freshman at Roger Williams University. “The quality of care was very high at Mass General. Everyone in every unit was attentive and eager to participate in the healing process.”

In addition to chemotherapy, which stopped the spread of the cancer, Freund’s doctors gave him a difficult choice that only he could make, says Edwin Choy, MD, Freund’s oncologist and a sarcoma specialist. The tumor in his ankle had to be surgically removed. Freund had to choose whether to have his leg amputated above the ankle and replaced with a prosthetic leg, or to have only the tumor removed and the leg reconstructed.

A reconstructed leg, Freund learned, would be a weaker leg. He would not be able to run, jump or play sports.After much consideration, he decided to have his lower leg amputated, choosing to replace it with a strong prosthetic leg that would allow him to participate in the sports he loves, like biking, skiing and, ultimately, Paralympic sailing.

“I was struck by the amount of grace he exhibited under pressure,” says Choy. He managed his treatments courageously. I would say he was unfazed. He is probably one of the most amazing people you meet in life.”

From left, Freund, Kendell and Doerr

Freund says he has “never once” regretted his decision to amputate. Instead, he has immersed himself in the world of “adaptive sports.” He does so not just as a competitor, but as a teacher and trainer for other people with disabilities.

Now training every day on the 23-foot Sonar boat his team will sail in the Paralympic Games, Freund says each member of his team has a role to play.

Rick Doerr is the most severely disabled teammate, with paralyzed legs and lower torso. He is also the most experienced sailor, having competed in the Paralympic Games in 2008. Doerr serves as skipper and moves about the boat by grasping a specially installed transfer bar and sliding on a bench. Brad Kendell, whose two legs were amputated, has a powerful upper body. He is the mainsheet trimmer, controlling the line to the largest sail on the boat, the mainsail.

Freund, having learned to maintain his balance and to avoid tangling his prosthetic leg in the rigging, can move about the boat most freely. He helps balance the boat by shifting from side to side and can duck under the boom when a better view of challenges ahead is needed.

“We work well as a team both on and off the water,” he says.

While Paralympic sailing in a world-class competition is an unusual accomplishment for a young man with one leg, Choy says many of his patients display similar positive determination and courage.

“Part of what makes my job especially rewarding is that I see this every day in my patients,” Choy says. “Hugh is an extraordinary example.”

Read more articles from the 08/26/16 Hotline issue.

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