Just its mention can bring us to our knees.
Why, cancer? A hundred times why.
A thousand times, why when it involves an energetic, ever-spirited teen with the brightest of bright lives before him?
Steven Danna, a senior tennis star at Waukee (Iowa) High School, is a refreshing take in a world that — all too often — is stale, bent-out-of- shape and consumed with never meeting in the middle.
Steven is gifted athletically, a talent in the classroom and possessor of a 10,000-watt personality.
Google “great kid’’ and his face pops up.
Though he will allow you to call him a typical 18-year-old, nothing Steven has experienced the past 24 months is run of the mill.
He has grown up loving all kinds of sports, digs shoes — oh, how he loves shoes — but found a true passion in tennis, though his winter offseasons are consumed by snowboarding. Unlike many his age, Steven is also not shy about telling you he has two amazing parents, two people who have been at his side through every up, every down, as well as every peak and valley along the way.
And there have been a bevy of both.
Today, thanks to Rock Valley Physical Therapy’s Matt Leal (DPT, Level One Physical Therapist), a team of doctors, a dedicated and caring family and the fortitude few his age possess, Steven lives to challenge the world before him.
And challenge he will.
A star player for Waukee High School, Danna’s 2019 tennis campaign began — like any other in mid-March. Soon though, pain and swelling appeared in his right knee, discomfort attributed — at the time — to a full-go, on-court schedule. The pain, however, refused to subside.
A visit to Steven’s pediatrician resulted in talk of tendinitis or bursitis and a suggestion to see Leal, who is based at Rock Valley’s Waukee clinic.
Leal’s involvement would be life-saving for Steven.
“I first evaluated him a couple days before the (2019) state tennis meet,’’ said Leal, a Davenport, Iowa, native, who did his undergraduate work at Western Illinois University in Kinesiology and received his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Des Moines University.
“At that time, he presented similar to hamstring irritation at pes anserine with traction epiphysis, which given his age, activity and growth patterns seemed appropriate,’’ Leal said of his assessment of Steven’s issues. “At that appointment, we were trying to get his pain levels down enough to get him through the state meet. We agreed to follow up after to address the remaining deficits.’’
When Steven visited Rock Valley and Leal following his Iowa State Tennis Tournament appearance, his symptoms had changed dramatically.
Bad had gone far beyond worse.
“The bony prominence became larger, motion and strength testing that reproduced his pain became inconsistent; he had also started to develop numbness and tingling in the lower extremity,’’ Leal said. “Steven was having subjective complaints with sleep and night pains. There were also instances where he reported the inability to walk for short periods due to pain levels. At that point, his presentation in the clinic that day warranted referral for further testing and evaluation. He was referred to Dr. Chad Carlson.’’
It was a quick-minded, life-saving response from Leal regarding Steven’s condition.
“Steven saw Matt once before state tennis in late May and then twice after the season. The second visit in early June, Matt noticed the swelling increased and Steven wasn’t getting any relief,’’ said Cheri Danna, Steven Danna’s mother, one of life’s true 24-karat gems.
“He suggested we see a sports medicine doctor. We saw one the next day and learned Steven had a type of bone cancer called Osteosarcoma. The average time to diagnose Osteosarcoma is nine months. We are so thankful Matt got us in touch with the right specialist and our diagnosis was reached in three months.’’
During and after the call from Dr. Carlson, Leal says words were hard to find.
“As a clinician there are no words to describe that type of diagnosis at his age and the feelings associated with that,’’ Leal said.
Steven admits he initially balked at sharing the extent of his injury, but is glad and grateful he opened up to Leal, someone he trusted.
“When I first had pain, I thought nothing of it,’’ Steven shared. “Since it was in the middle of tennis season, I figured it was just some pain brought on by all of the matches I had been playing for the past few months. It progressively got worse, so after a couple of months, I decided to tell someone.’’
There was, Steven admits, denial after Dr. Carlson shared what tests had found.
“When the doctor first brought up cancer, I immediately thought to myself “no way”. I was at a loss for words and had no idea what to do,’’ he said. “I believed that only older people got cancer, and that a healthy, athletic kid like me would never be able to get this sick. I left soon after and went out with some friends, trying to forget what I was just told. ‘’
The next few months would test Steven will and the will of those around him. Despite a significant amount of bending and with help from many, Steven refused to break.
“Unfortunately, Steven had some complications with his total knee arthroplasty surgery,’’ said Leal, who noted that Danna was forced to deal with three months of chemotherapy prior to the operation
“While inserting the tibial portion of the prosthesis his tibia was cracked therefore after surgery he had non-weight bearing restriction in place. To make matters worse, to account for his growth given his age, they adjusted the prosthesis to his anticipated height and growth pattern. When this was performed, the nerves in his leg were stretched, creating a neuropraxia which resulted in drop foot. Typically, after a total knee arthroplasty patients are weight bearing as tolerated.’’
Six months of chemotherapy followed surgery, testing Steven’s will at every turn. That’s six month of chemo post-surgery on top of the three months of chemo prior to his operation.
“Chemo was the worst experience I have ever dealt with,’’ Steven said. “ I wouldn’t move for days and would have to be bribed to eat, drink, and take my medicine. When I was in the hospital for therapy, I was at the worst mentally and physically I have ever been at. They tried counselors and brought people to talk with me, but nothing worked.
“Everyone would think that surgery would have been the toughest and worst part, but it was honestly one of my favorite parts,’’ he added. “I loved being at the University of Iowa and thought the fact that I had metal bones was pretty cool. After surgery, there were doubts I would ever run again. Tennis and all my other activities were always on the backburner while I tried my best to get better.’’
Family would also play a huge role in Steven’s recovery.
“Family support is probably the main reason I am here today,’’ said the ever-optimistic high school senior. “Without my parents’ support, I would have felt lost throughout it all. My mom stayed with me every night in the hospital, about 60 nights total. They would rotate throughout the day, and would play games, watch sports, and just hang out while I was confined to my bed. The support didn’t stop at my parents though, I had family members travel across the country to see me and help our family when we were at the hospital. Family truly is everything and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else by my side.’’
If you poll 100 physical therapists, all 100 will tell you they chose such an important career path to better the lives of those they serve and establish lasting relationships. The bond between a patient and a PT is unique. You see a patient the darkest of times, working diligently to bring light and life to those in your charge. The bond between Leal and Steven is one of trust, hope and friendship. Both say they were motivated by each other.
“While undergoing chemotherapy Steven would have good and bad days with fatigue and energy levels but would never shy away from an exercise or activity,’’ Leal, modest to a fault, said, lauding Steven’s resilience and determination.
“His self-motivation and hard work made my job easy. I met Steven as a patient but now look at him truly as a friend,’’ Leal added. “ We connect over sports, hobbies and family life. We both cheer for the Iowa Hawkeyes and talk about all things related to Hawkeye sports. We also typically give each other a hard time about our NFL teams, his being the Packers and mine being the Titans.
“Steven has been a big inspiration to me, watching a 17-year-old-now-18-year-old go through what he has had to go through and the positivity he brings with him to every appointment is unbelievable. He has taken everything in stride and never uses cancer, chemo treatments or his surgery as an out during the challenging times in therapy or in his daily life. Since the start, he has been very goal-driven on the activities he would like to get back to which has driven his success and hard work in PT. He continues to achieve his goals, some in which doctors didn’t think he would be able to do ever again.’’
And Steven has nothing but high praise for his therapist — and friend.
“When I first met Matt, I was scared, nervous, and confused,’’ Steven said. “ Matt always kept me positive, yet pushed me as if we had been best friends all our lives. I would spend hours upon hours each week in the clinic with Matt, working on my recovery. Our main goal was to bend my knee as much as possible, which the doctors claimed to be 90-degrees. We ended up pushing about 130-degrees in the end. We then focused on strengthening my leg. My leg was just pure skin and bone, and was the skinniest part of me by far. Even when I was down on myself because of my small leg or because I wasn’t moving as fast as I liked, Matt was there to keep me going. I personally think that we have talked more about sports than we have about my leg, which is a change from everyone else only focusing on my health.’’
The two even worked through the scariest of stages brought on by the coronavirus.
“The pandemic was the opposite of hard on me,’’ Steve said. “Sure it locked me in my house, but it gave me hours in our gym working on strengthening my body. At the start of March, when lockdown first occurred, I was in the worst shape of my life. I was still struggling to walk and run, yet spending hours a day working out allowed me to propel my recovery to a new level. Without the pandemic, I honestly don’t think I would be close to where I am today in my recovery. Sure, it was boring at times, but I developed many new hobbies that I enjoy a year later.’’
That Rock Valley Physical Therapy was on the leading edge of telehealth options during the peak of the pandemic, made things easier for therapist and patient.
“COVID-19 made things difficult with the uncertainty of the virus, the state of Steven’s immune system undergoing chemo treatments and his ability to continue with physical therapy,’’ Leal said. “Rock Valley was able to establish a telehealth option for patients which Steven did participate in. This transition was different than our typical in clinic treatments but we adapted and overcame it. He also had a full home gym which made exercise selection very easy within the home and did not hinder his prognosis.’’
Today, Steven is back on the court, competing, inspiring teammates and competitors alike.
“No one ever told me I would be doing the things I am doing today, which motivated me more than anything,’’ he said. “Life as a whole was always on my mind. I would play out scenarios in my head that sometimes did not end well. Ultimately these thoughts just pushed me harder in my recovery. ‘’
“My future plans have changed dramatically after having cancer,’’ added Steven. “ For years I wanted to be an anesthesiologist. Now, stepping into a hospital makes me sick and it is a struggle to go to appointments. Because of this, my plans have changed. I am pursuing a degree in business and will be attending the Tippie School of Business at the University of Iowa. I am excited to go into the business field, and hoping to maybe connect business with the medical field in some way. Overall, I am extremely thankful to be where I am at today. I couldn’t have done it without my doctors, nurses, surgeons, and friends and family.’’
And an observant, hard-working and caring physical therapist.
“Matt is so nice and patient and a great motivator,’’ Cheri Danna said of Leal. “He has guided Steven during his entry back into snowboarding this past winter and high school tennis this season. We are very lucky to be in Matt’s capable hands.’’
By: Johnny Marx, Storyteller