Minneapolis, MN -- For nine-year-old Nick Nelson, heading back to school was never really a choice. He had to do that. But the thing that kept him away for three weeks was definitely a choice.
Nick was born with something called Popliteal Pterygium Syndrome. The most common trait is a web on the back of each leg.
"I just remember when Nicklas was born and, honestly, they said there's a good chance he may never walk," says Greta Nelson, Nick's mother.
Nick did walk, but it wasn't easy. He could never straighten his legs, especailly the right one, and was in constant pain. He usually needed a wheelchair to get around.
So Nick made a choice. He asked doctors to amputate his right leg.
"I would like to run like my friends," Nick said before the surgery. "I want to be as tall as my friends."
Doctors amputated Nick's right leg at the knee on October 10 at Gillette Children's in St. Paul. For Nick and his family, it was the start of a whole new life.
Life after the surgery
Nick returned to school just 19 days after the surgery. His leg was gone but sense of humor was clearly still intact.
"I'd kick you in the shin right now, but I only have one leg, so I can't really do it," Nick kiddingly says to his best friend.
Nick learned to get around with one leg, but it wasn't easy.
"I miss walking and I can't walk anymore," he said in late October.
What he wanted was a prosthetic. Finally, just before Christmas, he got his gift. Nick was all smiles as he pulled the new leg out of a big blue plastic bag.
Like a NASCAR racecar, the leg was packed with decals for the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association, Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare and Children's Miracle Network. But his favorite decal was the one with the image of Dwight from NBC's "The Office."
"Because it's my kind of sense of humor," Nick says with a smile.
With help from the parallel bars, Nick quickly starts walking with the new leg. And before long, he removes his hands from the bars.
"Whoa, mom!" Nick screams.
"Oh my gosh," Greta responds. "No hands!"
Some thought Nick may never walk. But his mom has now seen him take his first steps twice.
"To watch your baby take his first steps more than once is just an unbelievable experience," Greta said.
When Nick returned to school a few days later, he needed some support from his crutches but was finally as tall as his friends.
"That is so cool," said one of the teaching aides after seeing Nick.
At recess, Nick decided to scale the giant playground net.
"I'm climbing to the top of this thing!" Nick announced.
Nick was determined to do it alone, and it took at least ten minutes to get to the top, but when he did, he could see pretty far.
"I see the whole Apple Valley," Nick screamed while sitting atop the net. It was the perfect symbol for all that Nick has accomplished.
"It just re-enforces the fact that we did make the right decision and that Nick made the right decision," said Gary Nelson, Nick's father.
Nick also joined the Minnesota Sled Hockey League shortly after his surgery. It's the first time he has been able to take part in team sports.
Trip to the Olympics
Nick dreams of going to the Olympics someday. But it happened a lot sooner than he ever imagined possible.
In mid-January, the Nelsons were invited to the U.S. Olympic Committee training grounds in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Nick met members of the Paralympic swim team, including Rudy Garcia-Tolson.
"I used to have knees like those," Rudy says to Nick. He also had Pterygium Syndrome and choose to have his legs amputated at age five. He's now 19 years old and one of the best Paralympic swimmers in the world.
"I never imagined that I would sit here and have lunch with all these athletes," Nick says with a huge smile. "Probably the best day of my life."
Nick also meets Alexi Salamone, who was born with deformed legs following the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. His legs were amputated at age four. Today he's the leading scorer for Team USA's sled hockey team.
Nick got to share the ice with Alexi during his visit.
"It's so funny because everybody focuses so much on disability and it's just absolutely so much about ability," says Greta Nelson.
And ability is what this trip is all about.
"It makes me think my life's going to be better and it's not gonna stink," Nick says.
It was Nick who said that sometimes you have to make hard choices in life.
"Very hard choices. But if you're brave enough, you can have enough power to do it, then you life will be a while lot better," Nick says.
His choice is proof of that.
"No regrets," Nick says. "I'm having a very good life now."
Nick still might have to make another tough choice about his left leg. Nick's doctor wants to take steps to straighten it and reduce the pain in his left leg. But Nick and his family are fully prepared to have that leg amputated, too.
By Joe Fryer, KARE 11 News
(Copyright 2008 by KARE 11. All Rights Reserved.)
(Copyright 2008 by KARE 11. All Rights Reserved.)