Doctors told Grace Bunke, then 12 years old, she had a dislocated knee. She knew it was something more.
ATLANTA - Her arm sweeps behind her, rising and reaching toward the sky, slicing back through the water. A single second later, her other arm follows suit. Her limbs are an orchestrated symphony of movement, each push and pull and kick designed to get her there first.
With her wavy sandy blond hair tucked beneath her cap, her goggles firmly in place, she pushes off the wall on the final lap, trying to dig deep, to find that final bit of energy to pull ahead of everyone else. Lungs burning and legs kicking she reaches and grabs for the wall. She does not win the swim meet today, but she will win it later, qualifying for the Pan Am games. Her journey across an Olympic size pool is emblematic of the greater, deeper journey thrust upon her a year ago.
It was a dislocated knee they told her. But Grace Bunke, then 12 years old, knew it was more. Sitting in the doctor's office with the diagnosis, Grace told her mother Vicki, "Mom, I know my leg is going to be amputated, I just know it."
Like all parents, Bunke had been worried when Grace started to struggle at her track meets. Like all parents, she was frustrated by Grace's declaration. "I'm like really? Really Grace? You have a dislocated knee cap. We're going to go from a dislocated knee cap to amputation...really?"
Amazing Grace: A story of Faith and Tough Choices
But Grace knew. "I was really mad. I knew it was going to happen." Grace had had a vision of a man showing her that her leg was going away. He told her that she would not be alone and that she would be okay. "I just recognized the voice." Grace says the voice belonged to her Uncle Bob who had died not long before from cancer. She still recalls how he said, "I know you're going to be okay. I'll be right by you."
Grace's anger was understandable. She knew, even as she saw the vision, that it wasn't her imagination, or some odd daydream, or even the sort of worried-worst-case scenarios that adults dabble in all day long. She knew it was the truth. It would take a few months for the doctors to catch up to her vision and by the time the diagnosis of osteosarcoma came, it had spread to her lungs. There was surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and options. So many options. The aggressive cancerous tumor had begun in her thigh, growing and dislocating her knee. These were life and death decisions no 12-year-old and her parents should have to make. Keep a mostly lame leg. Lose the leg. Drugs and more devastating drugs to kill the cancer. The Bunke family tried to make the best decisions, or in some cases, the least bad decisions.
Grace chose an option offered at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, an option only offered in certain parts of the country. Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Doctor Jorge Fabregas explained, "The perfect candidate for rotationplasty has to be someone who is very self motivated. They have to be driven. They have to want to be able to be active. It's when they cut off the lower part of your and leg and turn it around and attach it to your upper leg and your ankle functions as a knee and that's how you walk. It is something much more durable and active under the right circumstance, it is a great procedure."
Grace wanted to run. She wanted to swim. She wanted to snowboard. She is the child whose parents were always yelling, "Not so fast! Not so high." She chose rotationplasty. Just days after the dramatic surgery, she was in church. "The only time she never went to school was when she was either in the hospital or her doctors told her she couldn't go."
One year post surgery, Grace is back to running and waiting for her blade to use at her track meets. She is competing and winning swim meets. She is back to snowboarding. And yes, people stare. All the time. As she makes her way around the pool on dramatically different length legs, one foot facing backward, one can't help but do a double take, a triple take, a quadruple take. Grace's mom tells her, "Everyone loves a miracle." She also tells her that her leg is a 'shallow shield,' protecting her from people she wouldn't want in her life anyway.
Grace's sister Caroline calls her footsy. They are a family that has learned to laugh in the face of enormous fear, that has chosen not to dwell on if the cancer will come back, but to instead focus on living in the now. Vicki Bunke says, "You can't control what happens but you can control how you react. This is a life we never thought we would have, but to a certain degree I guess it's the life we were meant to live."
She gives her daughter a lot of the credit for where they are as a family. "When I think over this year and a half, I say honestly, Grace made it easy for us. She just did everything with such strength and courage."
While her friends have worries typical to 13 year olds navigating the beginnings of a grown up world, Grace is light years ahead of them. "There's nothing you can do about it. You have to move on from the past and into your future." When asked if her life is as good as before, she says, "I feel like it's better because once you go through something like this you have more -- you realize that you're so thankful for what you have. You have such a good life and some people are in the hospital suffering and may not make it."
There is still time that must pass, years that Grace must remain cancer free before they will declare her cured. She and her parents refuse to live in this limbo world, the one stuck between before and after. Vicki Bunke says, "We're not ever going to be the same. We've been changed -- I feel like, for the better. This is a life we never thought we would have, but to a certain degree I guess it's the life we were meant to live."
Bestowed upon her 13 years ago by her mom and dad, two young people at the beginning of their parenting journey, Grace's name seems pre-ordained. "My name is so great." Grace smiles. "It connects with God."