At first they thought they were bone cysts.
Sebastian Bonaiuto, then an eighth-grader heading into high school, was having trouble with his left ankle, and his foot was getting swollen. In August 2016, he had a surgery to remove what doctors believed was a cyst in his left heel bone. A second surgery occurred one month later.
But Sebastian was still having issues with his foot in October, leading to a third surgery in November 2016.
That’s when a test turned up the real problem: Sebastian had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
“I was pretty scared, obviously,” Sebastian said.
It wasn’t the first time the family had heard that kind of a diagnosis.
In 2008, his mother, Jessica, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in 2011.
“It was incredibly scary. It was devastating for me to hear the diagnosis,” said Dominic Bonaiuto, Sebastian’s father. “The thought crept into the back of my mind that I can’t believe that we might have to be dealing with this again.”
Instead of chemotherapy, Sebastian would need another surgery. This time it would be an amputation of his left foot at the ankle. “It was a bit of a gut punch,” Dominic said.
A Good Sport
After a successful surgery in March 2017, Sebastian turned his attention from surviving the cancer to moving past the amputation. For Sebastian that meant getting back into sports — especially football. “At first I was a little bit worried. I’m pretty athletic, so I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to play sports, but then I kind of just decided I’m not going to let this stop me. I’m going to continue playing sports,” Sebastian said.
Before the surgery, Sebastian met with John Hattingh, a prosthetist and the owner of the Prosthetic Care Facility of Virginia. Hattingh asked Sebastian what he wanted to do when he recovered. The first thing he said was that he wanted to play football — and Hattingh pledged to help him do it.
Hattingh’s facility fitted Sebastian with his first prosthesis in May 2017. Two more prostheses followed, with the final one completed in May 2018. The last one was a combination of a blade with a heel component that gave Sebastian both agility and stability, allowing him to play football, according to Hattingh.
Thanks to his prosthetic foot, Sebastian was able to get back into sports at Thomas Edison High School in Alexandria, Virginia. In the spring of 2018, he joined the track team, where he threw discus and shot put. In the summer of 2018, he participated in a recreational swim league. Finally, this past fall, as he entered his junior year, Sebastian began playing for the varsity football team as the long snapper.
“The remarkable aspect of this success story is really the amount of time and grit that this young man had to re-applicate himself to use a prosthesis to the maximum of the prosthetic’s ability,” Hattingh said.
Love Foots the Bill
Hattingh’s facility, which is family owned and operated, also donated a prosthetic fin, which helped Sebastian to swim. (The total value of the donation was $17,000. The facility also contributed a $7,000 upgrade to his prosthesis.)
“This kid is phenomenal. I can’t do enough for this kid because everything I give him he just turns it into a miracle,” Hattingh said.
Over the course of his recovery, the Bonaiutos relied on the support of both communities at the two parishes they attend — Our Lady, Queen of Peace in Arlington and St. Bernadette in Springfield.
Father Joseph Chacko, a chaplain who has counseled veterans who have had amputations, said losing a limb can be a form of death. There is a certain emptiness that follows.
But the meaning of that emptiness is transformed by the reality of Jesus’ empty tomb. “At the time of Jesus’ resurrection, the empty tomb was a symbol of hope for the disciples, whereas, for some other people — Jesus’ opponents — it’s a symbol of fear,” said Father Chacko, who works at the James A. Haley V.A. Medical Center.
In Scripture, fear is associated with darkness, while light symbolizes trust and hope in God’s love. That light, Father Chacko said, comes through faith. “The people of faith … trust in the Lord. So the faith dispels the darkness,” Father Chacko said.
Sebastian has found this truth in his own journey.
Steps of Faith
Sebastian, now 16, also relied on his personal faith in God. “I really found strength through my faith. I prayed on it a lot,” Sebastian said.
“I really believe that everything happens for a reason. God’s got a plan for everybody, and I guess this is my plan,” Sebastian said. “No matter what you’re dealing with, just make the best of it. That’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always looked for the positive in everything I was doing.”
Father Chacko encourages veterans to have a similar mindset. For those who are going through loss and grief, he suggests a three-step process of acknowledging the loss, seeing what remains and looking for what’s possible under the current circumstances. “I tell people: Every crisis is an opportunity. So it can be a stumbling block or it can be an opportunity for a stepping stone,” he said.
Sebastian has already had the opportunity to step out and give back. He has spoken at a dinner for sarcoma survivors and recently visited a hospital where he offered advice to a girl who had undergone a similar amputation. He has also run a 5K to benefit for the Inova Children’s Hospital, where Sebastian also had his surgeries.
Sebastian is thinking of ways he can give back in the future – and as a junior he is already scoping out colleges that will help him achieve his plan. Sebastian once wanted to be an engineer, and now, after his experience, he has narrowed his interest to the field of prosthetics. In fact, Sebastian even assisted in constructing the last two prosthetic feet he received, according to his father, helping out in the cutting and lamination process for each.
Bonaiuto, who works in government and community relations for the Inova hospital system, says he’s “incredibly” proud of all that his son has done. “You couldn’t ask for more,” he said.
He says he hopes his son’s story inspires others going through struggles. “I hope people would know that everyone does have their own inner strength. Hopefully they have the faith to rely upon that and draw upon their own faith and their own community for strength and that inspiration when they feel times are most difficult,” Bonaiuto said. “No one goes through anything like this alone.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.