“He loves anything to do with racing,” his mother, Sue, told me. “He’ll spend hours racing his toys and playing out different scenarios. The only video games he’ll play are racing ones.”
Ricky also loves “Sponge Bob,’ watching cartoons and animals.
“He’s just a precocious, fun-loving kid,” Sue says. “He wakes up in the morning happy and even with all he’s been through; he’s kept his zest for life.”
In April of 2011, Ricky began complaining that his leg hurt and would often sit and cry because of the pain.
They were eventually referred to an orthopedist for tests. After seeing the results, he set up an appointment for them at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. The family met with Dr. Walter Virkus, an orthopedic trauma and oncology surgeon.
He performed a bone biopsy and Ricky was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in December. It’s a malignant cancer that usually affects children and adolescents. The cancer had metastasized to the liver and an aggressive treatment plan was formed.
The regimen began with six cycles of chemotherapy administered over 18 weeks. In March of 2012, Ricky underwent liver resection surgery.
His Mom spoke of how the treatment took its toll on the young boy.
“He was hospitalized about every 10 days for either a fever or from the chemo from January 4th – May 5th,” she said.
The hardest part was yet to come.
The chemotherapy had shrunk the cancer but because his entire right femur was involved, the femur would have to be removed to save Ricky’s life.
Ricky’s parents were presented with two options; a full amputation at the hip or a lesser known procedure called a rotationplasty which would allow the surgeon to reconnect the tibia (lower part of the leg) to the hip bone.
Sue explains their decision to go with a version of the rotationplasty surgery as “three weeks of discussion, research, tears, and questions.”
Before Sue and her husband Dave delivered the news to their son, they took him on a family vacation.
“We chose to go to Florida and see Winter, the star of the movie ‘Dolphin Tale,’ at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.”
His parents contacted the aquarium ahead of time and arranged a special visit. They hoped that the meeting would help when it came time to explain the upcoming surgery to their son.
Winter is not your typical dolphin. She was rescued after being caught in a crab trap line and was sent to the aquarium to begin her recovery. As a result of the accident, Winter lost her entire tail and two vertebrae.
Few dolphins survive such an experience but Winter beat the odds. Her resilience inspired her rescuers to come up with a procedure to fit her with a prosthetic tail. The rehabilitation process is ongoing but Winter had adapted amazingly well to the device.
The people at the aquarium were “phenomenal”, according to Sue. They allowed Ricky and his parents to meet with the trainer and get a firsthand look as he attached the prosthetic tail to the dolphin.
At this time, Ricky did not know about his surgery but his parents soon discovered that the trip had made a lasting impression on Ricky.
When the family arrived back home, Sue and Dave sat down with Ricky to talk about the upcoming operation. They had also picked up a book about the dolphin, Winter, to help them break the news.
Sue describes the heartbreaking conversation, saying “We tried to explain to our precious little boy that he was going to have surgery to have the sickness removed from his body. We told him he would be like Winter and would have to learn to wear a fake leg just like Winter.”
They weren’t sure if he truly understood what was going to happen until they went to meet with the surgeon.
The surgeon told Ricky that he wanted to talk to him about his surgery. But to everyone’s surprise, Ricky interrupted the surgeon and began telling him what was going to happen.
“He showed the surgeon the book about Winter,” Sue said, “and went to a page in the book where it showed a picture of an amputee with the dolphin.”
Ricky had the surgery on May 21, 2012 and the procedure went smoothly. His recovery was difficult because he was in a cast from the middle of his chest to his knees. This left him immobilized for about six weeks and finding ways to entertain their son proved challenging.
His parents improvised by setting up makeshift race tracks on his bed but it just wasn’t the same. Ricky found a new outlet in video games.
In late July Ricky began getting fitted for his prosthetic leg and going to physical therapy at Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago, Illinois to learn how to use the prosthetic leg.
Word soon spread about this courageous young boy who loves racing and the NASCAR community responded. He has received cards, pictures and autographs from people all around the country.
“We have been so incredibly overwhelmed by everyone’s support and it never ceases to amazes us,” Sue said.
To learn more about Ricky please visit his “Team Ricky” Facebook page at the link below.
Special thanks to Don Betke, Chrissy Pistone, Santus Gore, Gerry Wright, Shelley Cochran, James Cochran and LJ Cochran for their efforts in bringing Ricky’s story to the attention of the NASCAR community. There are so many others who have selflessly come forward to support Ricky and his family in countless ways. It’s impossible to list each person by name but your spirit of giving is truly appreciated.