A Swimmer and a Survivor

A Profile of Chris Calby

by Rachel Kanigan - october 07
NEIRAD enilno edition

Load printer friendly version

 

It was February of 2002 in Patagonia, Chile. The Calby family was surrounded by massive mountains and glacier water. It was about 60 degrees outside with a slight wind chill, just enough to ripple the icy water. The sky was the color of a brilliant turquoise with few marshmallow-like clouds dispersed along the horizon line. Chris Calby, five feet ten inches tall, was staring down at the water. He was intrigued by its beauty as it glistened from the reflection of the bright sun. With swimming as his passion, he couldn’t help but be attracted to its splendor. Before he knew it, Chris was running and had jumped, breaking the peaceful water with his splash. As soon as he hit the water, his lungs felt as if they were going to collapse due to the extreme cold. In the 37 degree water, his legs had numbed completely. Struggling to breathe due to the glacial water, Chris had realized his mistake. Although surrounded by something that he loved, Chris felt an extreme amount of pain and discomfort in the freezing water.

* * * * *

It wasn’t a very long drive for Mrs. Calby, Chris, and his younger sister Liz, to get to Greenwich Hospital. Calby had been experiencing leg pain for the past week and he was having it examined by an orthopedic doctor. Mrs. Calby and Liz were waiting patiently for approximately four hours during the testing and examination. None of the Calbys seemed worried, until the doctor told them: “We have never seen anything like this before. In the worst case scenario, your son may have cancer. However, that is rather unlikely but we would still like to run a few more tests on him, just to see what is going on.” Mrs. Calby, Chris’s mother, was worried by the news and didn’t really know what to expect. A few days later, Mrs. Calby and Chris drove to Yale for further testing. “Cancer. I have cancer.” Chris repeated the words over and over in his head, trying to comprehend what he had just been told. Tears were streaming down his mother’s cheeks as she was seated next to the frozen fifteen year-old. The words didn’t make much sense in his head, and the seriousness of what Chris had been told did not seem real. The drive home from Yale was a long and quiet one. As they opened the door to the house, Liz came to the top of the stairs: “So, what happened?” “Your brother has cancer,” her mom said, struggling to get the words out as she put her hand to her mouth, her eyes welled with tears.

* * * * *

On December 2, 2005, three months later, the bald fifteen year old went to Sloan Kettering Hospital to have surgery on his leg to remove the cancerous part of the bone in his distal right femur. During the surgery, they broke four saws and two drills trying to get through his bone. Chris says with a smile that he “drinks his milk” due to the fact that his bones must have been extremely strong to cause that amount of damage to the hospital equipment. Also during the surgery, one of the nurses accidentally stabbed herself with one of the instruments that she was trying to saw through his leg with. Because of this, both the nurse and Chris had to be tested for AIDS. Luckily, the tests came back negative. It was Chris’s last week of treatment, and initially wasn’t planning on attending the prom the hospital was having for the patients there. However, he was convinced by the nurses. The prom was intended for the teenagers in the hospital who were going to be unable to attend their own proms. Chris was wearing a tux and a bowtie while his date was wearing a blue dress with earrings. His date for the prom happened to be his IV pole.

* * * * *

Chris has been best friends with Jimmy Jordan since sixth grade. Jimmy was very supportive of his best friend from the day Chris found out he had cancer. “He just kept telling me how bored he was with the cancer shit and how much he wanted to live his life after. It was incredibly inspiring that he had so much to live for. Chris worked extremely hard in school and even though he didn’t go to any classes, he didn’t fail. He really did inspire me. He is the best friend you could ever wish for,” says Jimmy. He was very supportive of Chris throughout his entire treatment. “It was really hard to see him lose his hair to the point where he had to shave it off. Whenever he would come to my house he would be the end of his cycle, so he would be at his full strength. The only time I really could catch a glimpse of the cancer impact,” he says, “would be when I visited him in the hospital in New York. It really was depressing being surrounded by a bunch of sick people with cancer. Yet, there was Chris, all smiley and cheery. Again, the one word would have to be inspiring. I couldn’t pity him.” Chris will never forget the pain he went through from August, 2005 to June, 2006. Chris was in the hospital for ten days after his surgery and roomed with a kid whose leg was amputated. Getting even a little sleep was practically impossible for Chris, since his roommate stayed up until two in the morning. The food was disgusting, and his dad would often try to retrieve better meals for his son. He ended up eating candy and drinking Sprite a great deal during the duration of his stay. The doctors were not happy with this diet, and they continuously reminded him that what he needed was protein. After the surgery, Chris was in extreme pain and was constantly given morphine until he started physical therapy. Once therapy started, a new and just as strong pain killer was prescribed. Approximately every four hours, a nurse would come into his room to check his blood pressure and make sure there weren’t any problems. Away from his house, friends, and school, his mom slept in the room with him for about four days after his surgery to comfort him and keep him company. About five or six days after his surgery, there was a problem. Chris’s wound was infected and the nurse removed the port where they put in the IVs. The doctors, nurses, Chris’ family, and Chris were anxious about the news. They thought this would mean another surgery if the infection spread. Luckily, the infection was contained, and, thankfully, another surgery was unnecessary. When Chris returned home, he had to use a CMP machine daily which made his knee flex, providing him with more mobility. The recovery from surgery was long and frustrating for him since he was coming from a very active lifestyle. “Surgery sucked a lot,” he says, “but I had to go through with it if I wanted to live.” He was on crutches until the end of January 2006. He walked with a cane for a week after that, but quickly decided that canes were for “wimps.”

* * * * *

Chris discovered his love for swimming when he was five years old after his mom signed him up at the Darien YMCA. He kept participating in the program, and with each practice, he improved. What Chris didn’t realize after his treatment was that he would have to stop doing all other sports besides swimming. He played soccer from 3rd to 9th grade and was the captain of the Fairfield Prep team his freshman year. He also played basketball. He had to stop both sports. Chris loves swimming, and it is his favorite sport, but was unfulfilled because it wasn’t a contact sport; “Even though I love swimming, it’s just not the same as hitting someone.” Although cancer prevented him from playing some of his favorite sports, swimming has stayed with him. Chris’s love for swimming has made him want to go back to his team and do better than before his treatment. He also says with a smile that “the amazing body tone doesn’t hurt either.” Today, Chris swims for the Darien Piranhas at the YMCA while his Fairfield Prep team is out of season. He has practices eight times a week. His summer job is also teaching younger kids how to sail even though most are scared of the water. Chris loves it out on the water in the summer driving a motorboat all day, and says that he digs the “sweet lifejacket tan.” His tough battle with cancer will always be a part of Chris Calby’s life, but he keeps living, taking each day one at a time. Chris has become an inspiration to his fifteen year old sister Liz: “I will always look up to Chris for never giving up and coming back even more confident that he was before his cancer.” He wasn’t happy that he had to go through with it, but getting cancer as a fifteen year old only made him stronger. Best friend Jimmy says: “He has the strongest will out of anyone I know. He kicked cancer’s ass.”