Lazaro Cordero may have lost his leg to cancer, but the 17-year-old did not lose his spirit.
Indeed, his dreams have been buoyed by the Dolphins Cycling Challenge, when his physician at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center pulled him in a specially engineered trailer attached to his bike and pedaled 30 miles with the 165-pound teen sitting behind, rooting him to the very end.
“Sometimes a doctor has to carry his patient,” said Dr. J. David Pitcher, 56 , professor of orthopaedics at Sylvester. “I am his chauffer. He is the important one.’’
It was a moving experience for Lazaro, Pitcher and the hundreds of cancer survivors who lined the final stretch of the journey, which began at Huizenga Plaza in downtown Fort Lauderdale and ended at the 50-yard line at Sun Life Stadium. More than 1,500 cyclists rode throughout South Florida earlier this month as part of the third annual Challenge, many of them cancer survivors raising funds for Sylvester’s facilities in Miami, Kendall, Plantation and Deerfield Beach.
“I feel great! Cause it doesn’t matter whether we got first or last – we made it,” said Lazaro, as he pulled himself up from the black nylon mesh seat on the recumbent bike. “I know what it is like to have cancer. Coming through the finish line and seeing all of the survivors was an inspiration.”
Lazaro was born in Cuba. When he was 10, doctors discovered a tumor in his leg. It was an osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor that usually develops during adolescence, when a teenager’s bones develop rapidly. Osteosarcomas are usually found in the shin, thigh or upper arm bones. Only about 20 percent of osteosarcoma patients survive, Pitcher said.
In Cuba, doctors did what they could to remove the tumor, but Lazaro lost too much muscle and tissue during the surgery. He had to walk with crutches.
“We had a long trip. It gave us some time to talk,” Pitcher said. “He told me how a lot of children who received treatment in Cuba didn’t survive.’’
Lazaro told him: “I wish they could be here with me now riding the distance.’’
Two years ago, Lazaro came to the United States on a visa with his mother, Rosario Soto. They went to Tampa where his brother, Mario Encinosa, lives.
When Lazaro first came to Florida, he was treated at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. There, the doctors performed two surgeries to help remove any dead tissue and to clear up the infection that had set into his leg.
But Lazaro didn’t have enough muscle for the doctors to fully repair his leg. There were no other options other than amputation. They referred him to Pitcher at UM, among a select number of doctors who have performed a tibial turn-up plasty, a surgical procedure that utilizes the lower leg to reconstruct the upper leg.
“Dr. Pitcher is an excellent surgeon,” said Dr. David Cheong of Moffitt. “I knew that that Mr. Cordero would be in capable hands for the challenge that faced him.”
Pitcher’s decision to ride with Lazaro resulted from a near personal tragedy.
Pitcher and his wife, Pam, were planning a vacation to ride their bikes along the Great Allegheny Passage.
“My wife and I were going to ride 325 miles from D.C. to Pittsburgh,” Pitcher said. “The second day of training she had an accident and suffered a pelvic fracture, and almost died during surgery.”
Pitcher searched for a way for him and his wife to have the vacation they wanted, looking into adding a buggy to the back of a recumbent bike to pull his wife along.
He contacted Utah Trikes, which custom built a 35-pound buggy and trailer complete with air suspension.
About $3,000 later, Pitcher had the buggy sent to Denver, where he tested it with Pam riding through the hills of Breckenridge. He got a lot of compliments and questions along that trip. He returned with an idea: “I wanted to turn something bad into something good.’’
Then he learned about the Challenge.
He had several other patients in mind but one was too old and the other was too heavy.
A little over a week before the Challenge, he asked Lazaro to join him.
“I felt happy he asked me,” Lazaro said. “In Cuba they don’t do things like this.”
Lazaro had gone through his own difficult time.
“There are seven types of cancer and mine was the worst,” he said. “I had two surgeries in Tampa to prepare my leg, and the one here in Miami. It is not easy accepting that I have just one leg at 17.’’
But amputating the bottom portion of the leg was his best bet, as he could be fitted for a prosthetic limb that would give him more mobility.
“He will be able to sprint and even be able to ride in the cycling challenge next year,” Pitcher explained. “He couldn’t dream of doing any of this before. It is an honor to have been able to ride with him. He pushed me toward the end. I was tired. He tells me, ‘You can do it!’
Michael Mandich, son of the late Dolphins broadcaster and former player Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mandich, was equally touched. “We have had amputees participate before but I have never seen anyone being pulled like that,’’ said Mandich, president of the Challenge. “We had 61 cancer survivors participate out about 1,500 riders. And there were 300 to 400 survivors there as a part of UM’s Survivor Day.”
Lazaro started the lengthy process of being fitted for his new prosthetic limb on Nov. 9. He will receive it in about a month.
“I am happy. I am going to be able to run, jump and do what everyone else does. I will be there [at the cycling challenge] next year,” he said. “I have one dream. I am not even sure I can do it. I don’t even know how to walk in this country. I want to be a Formula One driver. Like the races they have in Homestead. If that doesn’t work I want to be a scientist. Now, I have my whole future ahead of me. I am not giving up. I will never give up. I will do whatever it takes.”