Athol teen keeps swimming after amputation

  • Brian Tomlinson, 17, of Athol, sits in a lifeguard chair at the Athol YMCA pool. Tomlinson, who is a competitive swimmer at the Y, had a partial leg amputation in October due to bone cancer. He is working to become re-certified as a lifeguard. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Brian Tomlinson recently had surgery for what turned out to be a harmless extra lymph node, with no indication of cancer. However, he can’t return to the water until Monday — Independence Day. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/1/2016 10:47:30 PM

ATHOL — To a stranger attending a swim meet at the Athol Area YMCA, Brian Tomlinson probably looks like any other teenager finishing in first place.

A co-captain on the Athol Amphibians and partial to the butterfly stroke, he has been swimming since he was 6 months old and has worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the Y. It’s only when the 17-year-old emerges from the water that something looks a little different.

That’s because last October Brian had a portion of his right leg amputated due to an aggressive form of bone cancer. The leg now ends shortly above where his knee would be. His diagnosis came after weeks of unexplained leg pain and resulted in unsuccessful rounds of chemotherapy before the amputation. Brian and his mother, Julia Tomlinson, say the operation ultimately wasn’t much of a choice, as it was a matter of life and death.

“One of his greatest victories was in the middle of cancer treatment, still recovering from chemo ... he won a swim meet after amputation and chemo,” Mrs. Tomlinson says, sitting near her son, her husband, Sean, and Brian’s girlfriend, Allyssa Johnson, in a lounge at the Athol YMCA, “and he needed a blood transfusion the next day.”

Mrs. Tomlinson said Brian won the race while “bald as can be” and “pale as a ghost.”

Brian told The Recorder he quickly learned different people have different reactions to chemotherapy.

“I would just fall asleep for, like, three days, but then I’d wake up, and I was hungry again,” he says.

Now, the home-schooled teenager is focusing on recovery and getting re-certified as a lifeguard.

“There are not too many amputee lifeguards out there, but he will be one of the first ones,” Mrs. Tomlinson says.

Allyssa has taken over Brian’s swim classes, though he gives lessons on a volunteer basis. Brian says child swimmers are intrigued by his silver prosthetic limb, although he does not take it in the water, and they often ask to touch it, viewing him as a cross between “The Six Million Dollar Man” and Michael Phelps. He says he encourages youngsters to ask about his leg because it enables them to learn more.

‘Everything changed from that moment on’

Hardship doesn’t take a vacation.

That’s what the Tomlinsons learned in May 2015. The family was enjoying a get-away in Northampton when Brian, who had recently taken up running, began to complain of leg pain and they assumed it was shin splints. Brian tried routine remedies like keeping his leg elevated and using ice packs, but was soon taking Ibuprofen around the clock.

“He’s like a no-meds kind of kid. He does not like medication at all,” Mrs. Tomlinson said. “And then toward the end of that week he showed up in our bedroom, probably two or three nights in a row, around 3 o’clock in the morning in agony, in a lot of pain, and I said, ‘Sean, I don’t think that this is just normal shin splints. Something’s going on.’”

The Tomlinsons’ local physician immediately diagnosed a lateral knee meniscus tear (which he in fact had) and believed the pain was radiating down to his lower leg. Brian began going to physical therapy at Ramsey Rehab in Orange, and the therapists there recommended an X-ray to get to the bottom of what was ailing him. At the time, the family feared the issue was severe arthritis. That X-ray led to an MRI scan, followed by a phone call three hours later while the Tomlinsons were going for a walk. The doctor started by asking if Mrs. Tomlinson was sitting down.

“He said, ‘I’m very sorry that I have to do this, but it appears that your son has osteosarcoma,’” Mrs. Tomlinson recalls. “I knew it was cancer and I fell on the ground outside and just started weeping, and Brian and Sean were just staring at me, like, ‘What is going on?’

“And they knew it was bad — Mom was now sitting on the ground, crying,” she says. “And everything changed from that moment on.”

Brian immediately started three months of chemotherapy, getting breaks only if his body was not producing enough blood cells to be able to handle the treatment. He said this at least offered a change of scenery.

The tumor grew slightly and spread to a nerve bundle in his knee and lower leg, meaning he would lose all feeling in his lower leg if the tumor were removed. A proud athlete, Brian learned amputation gave him the best odds of being active again.

The surgery was scheduled for 9 a.m. at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester on Oct. 15. Brian says he doesn’t remember awakening from the anesthesia, but his mother recalls the moment with clarity.

“That was the worst moment,” she says. “He was hysterical when he woke up, absolutely hysterical. I don’t know if it was the shock of looking down and his leg being gone or the fact that he was in tremendous pain.”

Brian says he started using his walker that night and was off his morphine the next day. The road to recovery was trying, as he says he practically slept away a year of his life and missed a year of home-schooling. Mrs. Tomlinson said Brian is now N.E.D., a medical term that means there is No Evidence of Disease.

The family had a scare a couple of weeks ago, when a scan revealed something on one of his lungs. The Tomlinsons drove to Boston Children’s Hospital for surgery and learned it is a harmless extra lymph node with no indications of cancer. However, the surgical incision means he cannot swim for a couple of weeks. His first day back in the pool will be July 4, making it an independence day of a unique sort for Brian.

‘He’s got a lot of reasons to keep fighting’

Brian says the community “has been helpful in a lot of different ways.”

At the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau’s annual awards banquet on May 24, he became the first recipient of North Quabbin Inspiration Award for his resolve in the face of hardship. Brian told the 17 tables of guests that his family members and the community as a whole serve as his own source of inspiration.

Sean says the family was unable to communicate with people back home during his hospitalization because they lacked computers, so friend Jonathan Eldridge, who owns Never Grow Up! at 463 Main St., donated laptops as well as video games for Brian.

Eldridge said he has known the Tomlinsons for about 10 years, when Sean starting visiting the store.

“They’re just good people. I’ve known Sean forever. He helps me out all the time. He comes in and organizes and does stuff. He’s been doing it for years. He’s just a nice guy,” he says. “And Brian’s a really good kid.”

Mrs. Tomlinson, who also used to work at the Athol Area YMCA, says the organization has offered wonderful support as well. She says Healthy Living Director Matt Talbot has become family to the Tomlinsons, even traveling to Brian’s amputation surgery and pacing alongside Brian’s parents. Talbot said he was there to provide emotional and moral support to members of the community.

“I’d do that for anyone going through turmoil. That what the Y is all about. We care about them and want them to do the best that they can,” he says. “(Brian) is just an amazing kid. He has a lot of drive.

“Through this, he’s become the strongest person that I know, that my family knows,” Talbot adds.

He said the Tomlinsons are dedicated volunteers who “go above and beyond the call of duty” and won a YMCA volunteerism award in March 2015.

When Brian lost his hair due to the chemotherapy, a hat drive was held at the YMCA and Mrs. Tomlinson said Brian received more hats than he could ever use.

“When (cancer) hits you out of nowhere, it’s pretty life-changing. But he’s got a lot of reasons to keep fighting. One of them is sitting next to him right now — the girlfriend,” Mrs. Tomlinson said, smiling at Allyssa.

The two found out they had taken swim lessons together as toddlers and started dating one week before Brian’s amputation.

“She’s been our No. 1 ally in this,” Mrs. Tomlinson says.

Moving forward

Walking by the pool at the YMCA, Brian says the cancer and amputation derailed his career plans. He had hoped to join the military to become a police officer and then join a police department. He got a taste of his dream when the Athol Police Department made him an honorary officer on June 7.

A young man of strong faith, Brian said he is now considering becoming a Christian pastor.


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