Walking the halls of the inpatient Hematology-Oncology Unit on 4 North at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, one will typically see children from infancy through their late teens. But lately, those halls have also been home for 27-year-old Kirby Frost.
Kirby (KJ) is a lineman who works for the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). Originally from Missouri, KJ’s work has taken him throughout the United States – most recently, to California. It was not unusual for him to be working 12-14 hour days. Early this spring, KJ began experiencing a considerable amount of ankle pain. For several weeks, he attributed the pain to an instance of rolling his ankle in a parking lot, that he just wasn’t able to “walk off.” However, by April the pain had become increasingly worse. He went to an urgent care center hoping to get some answers. An X-Ray revealed a stress fracture. After hearing that, KJ requested an MRI; however, he was told that wasn’t necessary and was given an ankle brace and sent home.
The pain increased over the next couple months, so much so that it forced KJ to quit his job and come back to Missouri. Once he was back home, he made an appointment with a foot specialist, and brought the x-rays performed at the urgent care center in April. The foot specialist reviewed those images, identifying what looked to be a tumor, and ordered a CT scan and MRI. Within an hour, KJ had news that there was a tumor in his ankle, and he was referred to see Dr. David Greenberg, MD the following Wednesday. Dr. David Greenberg is an Orthopedic Surgeon at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, and a member of the SLUCare Physician Group. He takes special interest in the treatment of bone and soft tissue tumors, the study of bone void fillers and bone disease and sarcoma.
KJ recalls a quick cascade of events after his meeting with Dr. Greenberg. He had a biopsy on June 19, and a visit to The Costas Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon with chest CT scans two days later. “Dr. Greenberg told me he suspected osteosarcoma. I remember wondering how that was even possible since I was so healthy,” said KJ.
Osteosarcoma is a cancer of the bone, starting in the immature bone cells that normally form new bone tissue, and destroys tissue, weakening the bone. It usually occurs in adolescents and young adults, but can occasionally occur in younger children and older adults. Most osteosarcomas develop in people who have no other diseases and no family history of bone cancer. Since osteosarcoma is typically a pediatric cancer, his best option for treatment was at a comprehensive cancer treatment center on pediatric osteosarcoma treatment protocol. SSM Health Cardinal Glennon is a member of Children’s Oncology Group, which means that our skilled physicians have the ability to offer the very latest treatments for childhood cancers, including participation in clinical trials.
Fortunately, KJ’s scans revealed that the tumor was localized to his heel. KJ met his oncology team at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, including oncologist Lauren Draper, MD, and a plan was made for surgery. Prompt surgical amputation followed by chemotherapy was his best chance for treatment and long-term survival.
KJ had surgical amputation of his leg below the knee just six days after his biopsy, on June 25 at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. He recovered there for just a few days, and continued healing at home for the next few weeks. The next nine months would be focused on continued physical rehabilitation, and maintaining remission through chemotherapy,
On July 23, KJ was admitted to the hospital for surgical placement of his implanted port for chemotherapy delivery. This was also the day of his first chemo infusion, and overnight stay. KJ’s wife, Kelly, recalls that first treatment being pretty rough. “He was still dealing with a significant amount of phantom pain, and the nausea and vomiting from chemo hit him pretty hard,” she said, “but the rooms are so comfortable and bright …and the staff could not be more accommodating, that if you have to go through this, we can’t imagine doing it anywhere else,” states Kelly.
KJ will undergo more chemotherapy treatments over the next several months, and is already setting goals. When asked what his biggest struggle has been, he admits that, “The phantom pain management post-amputation has probably been the worst part.” However, KJ says, “We definitely talked through things as a team, and found the right combination of medicine that is working for me. I’m not ready to work 12 hour days on my feet yet,” he jokes, “but I’m confident about returning to work.”
Returning to work is definitely a goal in KJ’s short-term future. Fitted for his prosthetic leg in August, he is now walking off-and-on without crutches, and will be able to do more physical therapy soon. He is researching opportunities to get back to being a lineman, and simply plans to adapt to his “new normal” however he must. In addition to working, there is also a family farm! KJ and Kelly bought an 80 acre farm in New Haven, Missouri back in April, just before KJ received his diagnosis of osteosarcoma. They both look forward to all of the responsibility and work of farming, and certainly don’t plan to let cancer get in their way.
KJ adds, “I would love to thank all of the doctors and nurses that have spent so much time with me day after day. I thank my wife, who has been to every appointment and spent every day and night with me during all of our time at the hospital. I also want to thank all of the donors who have made Cardinal Glennon the place that it is, because it makes it not as hard to spend weeks away from home. But I give my biggest thanks to God. Even though I would love to not be going through this, and I would love to have my leg back, God has a great plan for all of this. I love going overseas on mission trips, and I truly believe that I will be able to help and mentor others.”