Pediatric bone cancer

40 years ago, Joel sacrificed a leg to save his life

Joel pictured with his nurse practitioner, Sharon, 40 years after his leg amputation that saved his life.
Joel with his nurse practitioner, Sharon, who worked with him after his life-saving leg amputation when he was nine years old.

It may not be the type of anniversary everyone would choose to celebrate. Forty years ago, Joel Everts, then age 9, sacrificed a leg and part of his pelvic bone to save his life not long after being diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer known as osteosarcoma.

Now a 49-year-old sports sales manager with Discover Green Bay, the Green Bay area’s tourism office, Joel takes his 40th “ampu-versary” in stride, not unlike the way he initially took the devastating diagnosis that left a young boy wondering if he was going to die.

Joel’s story, then and now, begins with his undying passion for sports.

“I played basketball, baseball, soccer and swam as a kid. I couldn’t get enough of sports,” Joel says of his childhood in Janesville, Wisconsin.

When Joel uncharacteristically asked to be taken out of a soccer game because of a stubborn pain in his knee, his mother, Joan (pronounced “Joanne”) knew something was wrong.

Initially, the local orthopedic doctor didn’t find anything of concern but as the family was headed down the hallway to leave, the doctor noticed something unusual in Joel’s walk and asked him to come back.

“He took some more X-rays of Joel’s hip,” Joan says. “The films showed advanced disease — presumably bone cancer — in the left hip joint,” Joan says.

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota was among a handful of medical centers recommended for Joel because of its expertise in treating his type of osteosarcoma.

During the summer following third grade, Joel recalls the moment before receiving anesthesia just before a leg and hip biopsy.

Would Joel wake up without a leg?

“They told me if the biopsy showed cancer, they would also amputate, and I would wake up after surgery without my leg.”

As he started to come to following the procedure, Joel lifted the bed sheet. His left leg was entirely gone.

“That was the a-ha moment,” Joel says. “My family has a dry sense of humor, so I remember thinking that at least we will have good parking when we go to baseball games.”

Joel as a teenager with his nurse practitioner, Sharon.
Joel as a teenager with his nurse practitioner, Sharon.

After four months following the amputation, Joel was fitted for his first prosthesis, or artificial leg. About two months later, thanks to a close buddy who wrote a letter about Joel that found its way to the Milwaukee Brewers, Joel got to hang out with the team in the dugout prior to a late season game at County Stadium during the club’s 1982 American League pennant drive. Brewer greats such as Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Rollie Fingers autographed baseballs for Joel, who also chatted with then-Manager Harvey Kuenn, himself a partial leg amputee due to a blood clot.

In early 1983, X-rays revealed more cancer in Joel’s lungs, and surgeons promptly removed the tumors. Because the cancer had spread, however, Joel’s survival was far from certain. Some doctors seemed to give up on Joel, but the Evertses liked what they heard after a visit to University Hospital in Madison to see Dr. Michael Trigg, then a UW Health Kids pediatric oncologist and now a Tampa, Florida-based oncology medical consultant to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

Chemo was tough, but it kept Joel alive

“We knew more treatment would be hard on Joel, but there was little choice,” says Joan. “Dr. Trigg saved his life by going after the cancer with high-dose chemotherapy. They didn’t have the same kind of anti-nausea drugs that are widely available today. As the treatments continued, the side effects escalated. Eventually, Joel would get nauseous or vomit during the car ride to Madison — a symptom doctors referred to as anticipatory nausea. There were times he wanted to quit and times we wondered if we should keep putting him through it.”

Dr. Trigg, a UW faculty physician from 1981-86, remembers Joel well.

“He was a delightful young man and a favorite among the nursing staff at the hospital,” says Dr. Trigg. “His treatment was not easy because chemotherapy was more toxic than what is given nowadays. Still, we did what we could to keep Joel alive and thankfully he is here today doing great things.”

Joel completed his course of 22 chemotherapy cycles in 1984 at age 11. The climb was hard to reclaim his strength, but he got there with plenty of support from his family, friends and teachers.

“School was not a problem for Joel,” says Joan. “He was a smart kid.”

Losing a leg didn’t mean losing the chance to stay active in sports for Joel. He played basketball on one leg in 7th and 8th grade and during his first year of high school.

Joel didn’t complain or show signs of self-pity. If someone offered him assistance in the cafeteria line, he’d respectfully refuse. And when younger kids stared at him, he’d jokingly tell them to eat plenty of spinach, or they might lose a leg too.

Hasn’t used a prosthesis in more than 20 years

By the time Joel graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1995, where he earned a degree in journalism/advertising, he stopped using a prosthesis altogether.

“I was getting a new artificial leg every two years and that process was quite an ordeal,” Joel recalls. “Over time, I built up my muscles to the point where I could hop around more efficiently with two crutches. I haven’t used a prosthesis for more than 20 years.”

Joel is proud of his 24-year career in sports marketing. Among his accomplishments are convincing the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) to move its annual Girls High School Basketball Tournament from Madison to the Green Bay area beginning in 2013.

Divorced with no children, Joel remains grateful to Dr. Trigg and the UW Health Kids cancer team that cared for him four decades ago.

“They were just wonderful,” recalls his mother, Joan. “We’re so thankful that Dr. Trigg went after the cancer with everything he had. Joel’s nurses were so kind and caring too.”

One of them, Sharon Frierdich, retired in 2019 after 37 years as a UW Health Kids oncology nurse practitioner.

“Joel just took things in stride and adapted to his amputation,” Sharon says. “He simply didn’t let that get him down, and his parents were very supportive.”

During their frequent hospital stays in Madison, Joel’s father, Steve, gained popularity by taking artwork requests from other hospitalized kids.

“He would paint their favorite cartoon character on the window in their rooms,” Joel says.

His parents, naturally, are extraordinarily grateful that their son is alive. They’re also proud of all their son has accomplished.

“Joel really loves his work and has never allowed his amputation to get in the way of making the most of himself,” Steve says.

“Forty years!” he says, almost in disbelief. “The odds were against his survival, but thanks to God and the care he got at UW, we get to keep celebrating this miracle.”