McLOUTH, Kan. — Amid the crash of pads and grunts of effort three Friday nights ago, several of McLouth High’s football players heard a telltale pop.
Trevor Roberts did not. Nor did the senior receiver feel any immediate pain, he says, when his awkwardly planted left leg gave way, two bones snapping like matchsticks and jabbing through the skin as he was tackled during a game just outside of Wichita.
It felt wrong, though. And when Roberts looked down after the first-half play and saw the leg hanging sharply and unnaturally to the left, the exposed bone bulging beneath his tights, he simply removed his helmet and lay back on the grass field.
The pain was coming now.
And his life was changing.
Trevor Roberts, a senior football player at McLouth High School in Lawrence, Kan., had part of his left leg amputated last week after a previous compound leg fracture developed complications. Roberts thought he would heal and be able to play in the final few games of the upcoming basketball season before he realized he was going to lose part of his leg. (Steve Hebert for USA TODAY)
The dark-haired, dark-eyed 17-year-old recounts the incident matter-of-factly from his living room couch, a white wrapping peeking from the bottom of his khaki shorts and covering what remains of the leg. Infection set in — gangrene, spreading rapidly — and six days after the game at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan., the leg was amputated just above the knee.
It could have been worse. Roberts’ surgeon at the University of KansasHospital feared he might die.
Archie Heddings, adds, however: It needn’t have been as bad as it was. As dangerous as open fractures are, modern medicine has long had a handle on them. Quick, effective attention and follow-up are key. The veteran orthopedic surgeon maintains that, at some point in the treatment, there was a slip.
Heddings says the KU hospital in Kansas City, Kan., is trying to initiate an internal review among the hospitals involved in the case.
Shifting on the couch, Roberts acknowledges frustration. “If it shouldn’t have happened,” he says, “I should still have my leg, and I’d probably be able to play a few games in basketball (he was McLouth’s second-leading scorer and rebounder as a junior). Now, I can’t.”
But he has come to terms with it. “Sometimes,” Roberts says, “I like to think it didn’t happen. But the majority of the time I know it happened, and I’ve accepted it.”
Somewhere in the family home is a stash of letters from a handful of small-college coaches in the area, early how-do-you-dos to a modest 6-2, 170-pound prospect with speed who might have been able to help a Baker or a Washburn or an Emporia State. They were sum and substance of Roberts’ plans after high school. He’d go where football took him.
No more, of course. Nobody is quite sure where the letters are now. With plenty of time in the nearly two weeks since the amputation, Roberts has moved his thinking about college down a more selfless path. He’s newly intrigued with idea of becoming, say, an anesthesiologist.
“Something in the medical field,” he says.
It promises to be a while before he’s no longer a patient. Roberts was back in the KU hospital Tuesday, admitted a day earlier when his temperature surpassed 102 degrees and his blood count scrambled.
The hope was that he’d be released and cleared to attend Thursday night’s Kansas-Kansas State game in Lawrence, 18 miles due south of McLouth. KU coach Turner Gill invited Roberts, guardians Jerrad and Lisa Humerickhouse and their family to stand on the sideline.
The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs have been in touch, too, shipping a football autographed by rookie standout Dexter McCluster, who shares his jersey No. 22. Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins sent a handwritten note of encouragement.
Locally, a football tailgate party and other fundraisers have brought in $5,000 to help with expenses the Humerickhouses’ insurance and a school policy might not cover.
“With all this attention, I think he’s on a high right now,” says Heddings, who continues to oversee Roberts’ care after performing the two-hour operation that removed part of his leg Sept. 30. “He’s going to come down if he hasn’t already.
“Trevor was a football player. He was strong. He could get out there and do whatever he wanted. And in a sense, this injury threatens that part of him. It kind of robs him of who he is.”
Game of his life: Roberts has no problem walking you through his ordeal in the season’s fourth game. He has viewed the play on film several times. “I was curious about what it looked like,” he says.
Adding to the cruelty, he was playing the game of his life.
He’d piled up 193 all-purpose yards, including 14- and 20-yard receptions and an 80-yard kickoff return for touchdowns. And it was only the second quarter. Roberts got the call again, went into motion, took a pitch and headed for the corner.
He broke a tackle and was stumbling ahead when another tackler jumped on his back. The leg couldn’t take it. Roberts carries an X-ray image of the severed tibia and fibula in his cellphone.
Accounts of what happened immediately afterward vary. Roberts and the Humerickhouses — he has lived with them since his mother and brothers moved to Colorado a little more than a year ago — recall that it was 15-20 minutes before an ambulance arrived and he started getting treatment. Sunrise Christian headmaster Robert Lindsted says the school had a team physician, an M.D., at the game and that she was on the scene “within seconds of when the accident occurred” along with a second doctor and an emergency medical worker who were at the game.
Lindsted says an ambulance arrived within three minutes. “I think that was handled properly,” he says. “I don’t know what else we can do.”
That’s not where Heddings, the surgeon, points a finger. “To me, in all honesty, I think this is a failure of the doctor-hospital system,” he says.
Roberts was taken to Wichita’s nearby Via Christi Health hospital, where that night a titanium rod was inserted in the broken leg. He stayed into the weekend and was released Sunday.
One subsequent high-fever scare took him to a Lawrence hospital for a look two days later. A second in another two days put Lawrence doctors on full alert. Roberts’ temperature was 104. His foot was blistering. He was rushed by ambulance to the University of Kansas Hospital, where Heddings pulled the player and the Humerickhouses into a quiet room and laid out the grimness of the situation.
He’d probably have to take part of the leg, Heddings explained. “And he said there was a chance I wouldn’t wake up, that I might die,” Roberts remembers.
Though the poisoned part of the leg had to go, the operation was successful.
Infection wreaks havoc: In medical terms, the limb was being attacked by a potentially deadly skin- and tissue-destroying infection called necrotizing fasciitis. “I don’t want to impugn anybody,” Heddings says. “But … one of the first things you’re supposed to do when there’s an open fracture is get tetanus and antibiotics. Then, you take that person to the operating room and you get out all the dirt, you get out all the bone that doesn’t have soft tissue attached to it — that’s dead bone — and you take out all the dead muscle. And then if there’s any question 48 hours later, you take the patient back to the operating room and look at the wound and make sure there’s no dead muscle.
“If there is dead muscle, those bacteria have something they can reproduce in. And they’ll … start wreaking havoc.”
At Roberts’ first stop, Via Christi hospital in Wichita, spokeswoman Roz Hutchinson says via e-mail, “We are deeply saddened to learn that Trevor’s devastating injury has so dramatically changed his life. We are reviewing the care provided and are unable to provide any further information at this time.”
Roberts, who is keeping up with schoolwork at home, figures to return to class in a couple of weeks when he no longer needs intravenous antibiotics. Depending on healing, Heddings says he could be getting used to a prosthesis in four to six weeks.
The doctor strongly suggests a psychological complement to his physical care, though the teen’s buoyancy to date has drawn raves. “He’s kept me going through all this,” Lisa Humerickhouse says.
On Friday, eight days after the amputation and the night of his initial release from the University of Kansas Hospital, Roberts wheeled into McLouth’s football stadium to a standing ovation from a packed house. At halftime of the Bulldogs’ 28-14 win against Horton, he was crowned homecoming king.
He relives the moment with a fake-smug smile. “I’m not going to lie,” he says. “I thought, ‘I was pretty sure I already had it.’ “