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Hockey Fights Cancer: Back on the Ice

Enduring 30 rounds of chemotherapy and six surgeries, Bretton Chitwood's determination to play hockey again fueled both him and his mother

by Art Thiel / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Growing up, Bretton Chitwood tried several sports not to his liking. Baseball, football, soccer, basketball. 

"There's a lot of standing around," Chitwood says. 

Then Chitwood and his family attended a Western Washington University hockey game because the team's goalie was in his parents' youth group in nearby Lynden. 

"I loved it from the first minute," Chitwood recalls. "The speed, the intensity. It was non-stop. I figured it would be even more fun to play."

He was right about the joy. Chitwood registered with a youth hockey program in the Bellingham area. Playing center and occasionally left wing, his bantam-level league team won a championship, plus a tournament in Moses Lake, where Chitwood said "the trophy was bigger than some of the kids."

"When I'm on the ice, I feel free," says Chitwood. "I can skate as fast as I want. If I get a kick or two in the real world, I can get all my anger out with the skating and shooting. I feel like I accomplished something."

Chitwood has faced way too many real-world setbacks for anyone, let alone a 19-year-old. Longboarding to high school in September 2015, then-sophomore Chitwood had a freak accident that broke his right leg in six places and fractured a major growth plate in the leg. He was confined to a wheelchair for six weeks, before transitioning to crutches. 

Chitwood was cleared to resume full physical activities in early 2016. But by May, his right ankle was swollen and painful. An MRI scan at Seattle Children's Hospital prompted emergency surgery that revealed osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive type of bone cancer in his right heel.

Next was unimaginable: 30 rounds of chemotherapy and six surgeries, which included amputation of his right foot. 

"When I first heard the word 'amputate' from the doctor, I asked her to explain," Chitwood recalls. "I knew what the word meant, but I was just hoping I was wrong."

Naturally, the teen's mind raced with thoughts: "I wanted to be a firefighter and didn't think that was in my future. I kept thinking this is a nightmare and I will wake up."

Chitwood agreed to share his story with NHL Seattle as part of the organization's commitment to NHL "Hockey Fights Cancer" yearly November initiative to raise both awareness and funds. Chitwood and his mom, Kara, are focused on increasing awareness of children's cancer and how it impacts both the child and family. 

"It is a huge shock to find out you have cancer," says Dr. Katie Albert, a pediatric oncologist at Seattle Children's. "And it's even more difficult to hear the word 'amputation,' but for some tumors, it is the ideal option for retaining the best function. We wanted Bretton to be able to continue to do the things he could do before his cancer diagnosis."

"What kept me going was hockey," says Chitwood. "I was always thinking about getting back on the ice. I would beg my nurses to let me get chemo-the smallest mouth sore can cancel it. My whole goal was to get back on skates."

Kara Chitwood quit her job in Bellingham and relocated to Seattle because the Children's doctors insisted Bretton "had to be within one hour of Children's at all times." The Ronald McDonald House Charities helped her find a nearby place to live. 

She credits her son's mindset for helping her cope through crisis. 

"I don't think I could have managed it without Bretton's attitude," she said. "He didn't want pity, didn't want people to feel sorry for him. He was more concerned about me, and how the family was handling everything, plus other kids at the hospital.

"He didn't want us or the doctors and nurses at the hospital to be upset. Without that, it would have been much harder to take."

As chemo progressed and the amputation healed, Chitwood was fitted for a prosthesis. In the summer before his senior year at Lynden High, he had a relapse when cancerous spots were detected in a lung, which had to be surgically removed.

Despite all, Chitwood kept up his coursework with help from the Lynden school district and the in-house school at Seattle Children's. He returned to Lynden High in the second semester of his senior year and earned his diploma on time. 

Chitwood returned to the ice recreationally to practice with the prothesis. Because the ankle is immobile, Bretton had to learn a new way to slide stop, including feeling vibrations as his weight shifted. 

 "I couldn't keep banging into the boards to stop… my coach helped me with stopping and turning. I was relearning how to skate: Bend your knees, push off."

Another challenge: "A key thing is how well your skates are tied. They can't be too tight or too loose…when I first started [with the prosthesis] I didn't know if my [right] skate was tied right."

These days, Bretton Chitwood is a 19-year-old sophomore at Chattahoochee Technical College in Georgia, staying with his father, Adam, an engineering project manager and Georgia native. Bretton achieved a milestone moment recently when, on his third try, he passed the test for his driver's license. The law requires a driver with a prosthesis to operate a vehicle without additional equipment. 

"I just kept practicing and being patient," says Chitwood. 

Kara Chitwood recently shipped Bretton his gear -- he has a special boot with a top that opens to accommodate the prosthesis - and now with his own transportation, Bretton can drive to community rinks.

Chitwood's career ambition is to be a special education teacher. Lynden High has a program called 'Pals' that pairs students with others who have special needs. Bretton discovered he has an affinity for positively influencing youngsters who often have behaviors that keep them from connecting with others. 

"When I walked into that class every day [during his time at Lynden High]," he says. "It just felt right."

In 2017, Chitwood was selected by the Seattle Sports Commission as the winner of its annual Wayne Gittinger Inspirational Award, going to a young athlete who has overcome major medical obstacles to inspire others.  

Ahead of NHL Seattle getting officially awarded the league's 32nd franchise in December 2018, Chitwood was invited to join project leaders Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, builders of the New Arena at Seattle Center, and franchise co-owner Jerry Bruckheimer, at a ceremony atop the Space Needle on March 1, 2018. It marked the day depositors could begin to register for tickets.  

The leaders gave Chitwood the task of raising the club's flag at the Needle's peak. 

"It was amazing to be at the very top," says Chitwood, who as a youngster adopted the Chicago Blackhawks as his favorite NHL team. "I have been waiting since sixth grade when I first heard rumors about Seattle getting a team. I mean, I will always love the Blackhawks but you know it, I will be a huge Seattle fan."

 

(All photos provided by the Chitwood family)

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