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From childhood cancer to Olympic gold, to med school: Patient is ‘unstoppable’

From childhood cancer to Olympic gold, to med school: Patient is ‘unstoppable’

He was in the seventh grade when Sam Grewe was diagnosed with cancer and became a patient at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Now, 10 years later, Grewe is sporting an Olympic gold medal and has started a career path to becoming a physician.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

His healthcare team members at Riley Hospital remember Sam Grewe as a “goal setter,” as “unstoppable.” There were words like “awesome” when they heard he achieved a gold medal in high jump at the recent Paralympic Games.

And then again, they weren’t too surprised. Grewe has always looked forward – ready to achieve a new goal.

It was 2011 when Grewe, now 23, felt pain in his right knee. On Christmas Eve he learned that he had a tumor that was diagnosed as osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Four months after chemotherapy, Riley doctors performed rotationplasty – a surgery that removed part of his leg, including the tumor - and reattached the lower leg to the thigh.

At Riley Hospital, Grewe was in the care of Dr. L. Daniel Wurtz, an osteo-oncologist. This month is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, symbolized by a “gold” ribbon.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 10,500 children in the United States under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2021- a rate that has been on the rise over the past few decades. At the same time, thanks to treatment advances, 84 percent of children with cancer now survive five or more years. After accidents, cancer is the second leading cause of death in children age one to 14.

Grewe, a native of Middlebury, Ind. credits Dr. Wurtz and his other care givers at Riley Hospital for where he is today.

“They saved my life,” he said. To date, that life includes a 2017 graduation from Northridge High School where he was a standout on the Raiders’ track and field team. In 2016, he posted the best high jump of his career during a sectional meet and was named “Athlete of the Year.” The same year, he competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, setting a personal benchmark with a high jump of 1.86 meters that earned him a silver medal.

The Goshen News recently called him “one of the most decorated U.S. Paralympic athletes in the last six years.” Included in those decorations are winning World Championship titles, and setting a world record at the Parapan American Games.

Like the US Olympics, the Paralympic Games, are staged every four years – bringing together leading athletes in multiple sports. Due to the pandemic, the games slated for 2020 were disrupted and were moved to August 24th through September 5th this year. So off Grewe went – traveling more than 6,000 miles from his Indiana home to Tokyo, Japan.

After winning the silver medal in 2016, Grewe was determined to capture the gold this year. While he competed in the drizzling rain, his parents – Randall and Michelle Grewe - hosted a watch party at their Middlebury home.

A Facebook video shows family and friends wearing “Grewe Crew” t-shirts and cheering for their favorite athlete. Not long after Grewe won the gold medal his parents received a congratulatory call from his Dr. Wurtz.

After high school, Grewe attended the University of Notre Dame. He credits his family and friends, along with the fighting Irish football team for providing relentless support throughout his cancer diagnosis and healing. In 2013, after his amputation, he spent more than 100 days in the hospital and yet he didn’t miss a single Notre Dame home football game. The players cheered him on by wearing “Grewe” t-shirts and making Grewe an honorary team member during their National Championship Season.

He graduated in this spring from Notre Dame and now Grewe is enrolled at the University of Michigan. That alone is among one of his greatest accomplishments given that he missed nearly two years of Middle School during his cancer treatments. He entered high school with what he defines as a “sixth grade education,” and worked relentlessly to catch up.

For his accomplishments, Grewe received a full “Dean’s Scholarship” to the University of Michigan. Dean’s scholarships are awarded to candidates with outstanding potential for leadership in academic medicine. When Dr. Wurtz learned that Grewe is enrolled in med school he offered to have Grewe come and shadow him at Riley Hospital.

“I hope when things slow down I can do that,” said Grewe in a phone interview. “I do believe my experience as a cancer patient has had a great influence on me going into medicine. I went to Riley when I was the most vulnerable – immediately after I was told I had cancer. We had so many unanswered questions,” said Grewe.

“One of the things I remember is how well the staff at Riley comforted me and my family. They answered as many questions as possible, were straight forward, and I never felt like there was anyone who wasn’t qualified to care for me,” he said.

“Riley took an extremely dark and vulnerable time in my life and helped guide me through it,” Grewe said. As far as his plans for a specific area of medicine he said he is very interested in oncology and orthopedic surgery.

“I’m keeping open minded but I do believe after experiencing cancer, I have something that I can offer to other oncology patients.”

Tags:

Cancer

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