It all began in late 2011 when Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC graduate-to-be Wyatt Dannels noticed a bump on his left ankle.
Dannels, who has a wife, Jenny, and three children — two boys and a 15-month-old girl — didn’t think too much of it at first.
A few months later, he had it checked out and was given a clean bill of health. The doctors told him it was just a lipoma — a benign, fatty tumor — and that he was going to be fine.
But the growing bump continued to bother Dannels, a self-described athletic guy who always ate healthfully, went to the gym regularly and didn’t drink or smoke.
It was when he played basketball that he noticed it the most.
“Every time I would jump, it would pinch the nerve in my foot, and it just bugged me,” said Dannels, a member of the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program.
In mid-2012, Dannels finally had an MRI taken and was diagnosed with cancer.
Looking at the MRI, doctors told Dannels the lump was likely a synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that occurs near the joints of the arms, neck and legs. His prognosis was bleak.
“I was just in shock, thinking ‘Man, I’m probably going to die soon. It’s probably everywhere in my body, and I don’t even know it,’ ” Dannels said. “All I thought about was my children. Am I going to start making videos for them? ‘Hey, Happy 14th birthday!’ or something like that.”
Fortunately, the biopsy returned slightly different results: Dannels had chondrosarcoma, a less fatal cancer that affects cartilage.
He underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but the bump didn’t respond, which left only one option. He’d have to have his lower leg amputated.
It’s not news anyone would want to receive, but Dannels said he was actually “ecstatic,” given the treatment meant he wasn’t facing an early grave.
He knew he’d have to miss school and found out from faculty that taking a few months off to recuperate would unfortunately mean having to sit out an entire academic year.
“I said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ My goal was to finish and get it done.” So Dannels vowed to miss just two weeks of school so he could graduate on time.
On Sept. 25, 2012, Dannels headed to the hospital for the amputation with a support system in tow: his wife, his parents and his in-laws.
Before the surgery, Dannels and Jenny prayed and talked about how things would change after the surgery — she’d now have to take care of the couple’s three children — and then Dannels, for the last time in his life, walked on two legs into the operating room.
“I remember thinking, ‘This thing is so small. It’s ridiculous that I’m losing my whole foot. How is this happening?’ ” said Dannels, who explained that most days it still feels surreal. “Some days, I wake up thinking, ‘Oh, it was just a dream,’ and then I try to get out of bed and thinking ‘Never mind, it’s not a dream.’ ”
Life, post-amputation, has taken some getting used to. Dannels said it now takes him much longer to get ready in the morning, that he has to sit while showering, and that he misses playing football, running and swimming.
But what bothers him most is when his daughter needs him in the middle of the night, he said. He can’t just get out of bed anymore to get her.
After his surgery, Dannels returned to the Ostrow School on crutches, relying on help from those around, at least initially, to keep up with the demanding life of a dental student.
“The faculty has been phenomenal,” he said. “It’s kinda weird going from being just a student who nobody really knows to every time I walk in a room, everyone says, ‘Hi’ and talks to me.”
Despite a medical setback — shortly after the first surgery, Dannels developed a staph infection and had to have an additional inch of his leg removed — he’s managed to continue his life just as he had before the amputation, thanks to a fighting spirit.
“I’m the guy who always says ‘Fight on’ to everything” he said. “If I had been like, ‘Yeah, I should take the whole year off,’ all it would do is set me back more and put me further back in life.”
This month, Dannels — who was recently fitted with a new lightweight prosthetic leg — will make his way across McAlister Field to receive his DDS degree. Afterward, he plans to return to Arizona to practice dentistry.
His advice to others who face obstacles in their studies?
“It’s going to work out,” he said. “You just put your head down, put your shoulder to the wheel and work hard.”
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