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Little boy, big inspiration

  • LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Nathan Holmberg wanted to be a pirate this year for Halloween. His "Poppy," Sam Alpaugh made him a peg leg that replaced his prothesis for the look of authenticity.
    LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Nathan Holmberg wanted to be a pirate this year for Halloween. His "Poppy," Sam Alpaugh made him a peg leg that replaced his prothesis for the look of authenticity.
Published December 16. 2009 05:00PM

It's the day of the big Halloween party at 4 1/2-year-old Nathan Holmberg's church. He knew months in advance that he wanted to be a pirate. In fact, he wanted to be a pirate last Halloween, but his mother talked him out of it, so he went as Curious George instead.

Nathan asked his mom if he could be a pirate this year.

"I asked him, what kind of pirate? One with long pants or one with a peg leg? His eyes got really big and he said he wanted to be one with a peg leg," says Becky Holmberg of Lehighton.

Now as his mother slips on his black jagged pants, white shirt with a red vest and ties a black and red striped belt around his boyish waist, Nathan gleefully practices his "Arghs" and "Ahoy, Mateys."

Becky places a black eye patch over his right eye, covers his light brown hair with a black and red scarf. In his best swash buckling manner, he brandishes his plastic cutlass and gives another fierce "Argh."

But his costume isn't quite complete.

Becky gently lays Nathan down on the floor and removes his right leg prosthesis and replaces it with a specially made peg leg.

She gives him a hand up and waits for him to get his balance. Then the transformed little boy grins mischievously, strikes a "shiver me timbers" pose and gives his best "Argh" yet.

The little buccaneer is ready to hunt for buried treasures and plunder the good ship Bethany Wesleyan's cargo for candy with all the confidence of any 4-year-old.

Nathan's family has worked very hard to help him achieve that confidence, but Becky gives all the credit to her son.

"He doesn't recognize any limitations because he's never known anything different," she says.

When Becky was pregnant with Nathan, in her fifth month she learned that the baby had bilateral club feet.

"I was crushed. And at the same time, I felt silly being so crushed. Here I was a pediatric nursing supervisor for Bayada Nurses. We do home care for kids with physical disabilities. I deal with children with far more serious problems. That was why I felt silly about my initial reaction," she says.

After Christmas that year, she went for a Level 2 ultrasound. That was when she found out that one of the bones in his right leg was short.

"I had the rest of my pregnancy to prepare for Nathan," she says.

Nathan was born in April, 2005, with Stage 1 tibial hemimelia of his right leg. He was completely missing his tibia. He had no knee cap and his quadriceps was short (a group of four muscles that are attached to the front of the tibia, which he did not have). He had a left club foot also.

At one week old, his left foot was casted and he had it recasted once a week for the next three months to help the foot move outward in a more normal position. At 3 months old, he had left heelcord release surgery and when he was 2 years old, he had a tendon transfer. There will probably be two more surgeries on that foot in the future. He wears a plastic brace for support.

As for his right leg, "We were told there was no way to repair it. When he was 2 weeks old, we knew he would have his leg amputated," she says.

The Holmbergs took 8-month old Nathan to the A1 Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, where they did a knee disarticulation. Nathan had a complete femur so everything below that was removed.

For his first Christmas present, 9-month old Nathan received his first prosthesis, or as Nathan calls it, his "helper leg." He learned to walk using a baby walker at 1 year old. By 1 1/2, he was walking independently. He has been averaging one new prosthesis a year but this year has had two due to his growth.

Because Nathan learned to walk with a prosthesis, he doesn't let anything deter him from trying anything and everything from soccer to T-ball.

At 2 years old, he had a peg leg with a foot, which didn't bend. But it didn't stop him from trying to climb a ladder at his church's playground, going up and down.

"He's very matter of fact about it all. To Nathan, it's just who he is," says Becky.

He loves following his big brother, Matthew, 13, who has great patience with Nathan.

Becky says it helps to have a sense of humor, especially when you have a leg sticking out of your purse.

"One time when he was 2 years old we were in Old Navy shopping for socks. He was sitting in the cart with his legs dangling down and the suction let loose and his leg fell on the floor. So I just matter of factly tucked it in my purse and went about my business until I could get him in the car and reattach it. It had a lot of people looking at us strangely but it's just something you get use to."

She adds that she could laugh or cry about it.

"I choose to have fun with it. He's kind of picked up on that attitude."

Recently at his day care, a new employee was helping the children get ready for their naps. Nathan likes to remove his leg to rest. He casually remarked, "I guess I'll take my leg off," and proceeded to do just that.

"I understand it really freaked her out because she didn't know Nathan had a prosthesis. But Nathan took it all in stride and calmly proceeded to show it to her, teaching her all about it," smiles Becky.

The biggest problem Becky sees for Nathan is his club foot and the teasing he will receive.

"Kids tease other children about anything so I'm sure it will happen for him about his foot. But he has the type of personality that I'm hoping will help him cope with it."

Becky tries not to dwell on Nathan's circumstances.

"Maybe that's why God gave me the job that I have because I can see families who are an inspiration to me. They deal with so much and I know Nathan's going to be just fine. He's going to go to college and live a full and happy life."

She adds, "Nothing stops him. He sees no obstacles. He had a hard time learning how to ride a bike, but he did it. I'm open to anything he wants to try, as long as it's nothing radical."

Summertime is shorts time and Nathan does get a lot of stares. Sometimes when he observes those looks, he'll say to a person, "It's OK. You can ask me about it."

He takes swim therapy once a week and physical therapy once a week.

After Becky and Nathan decided he was going to be a pirate with a real peg leg, Becky asked her father, Sam Alpaugh of Kresgeville, if he could take Nathan's former prosthesis and turn it into a pirate's peg leg.

Sam and Nathan have a mutual admiration thing. Nathan stays with Sam and his wife, Helen, every Wednesday and Friday. Nathan adores his "Poppy" and Poppy thinks Nathan is an inspiration and would do anything for his little buddy.

So, Sam laid in bed that night, thinking about how to construct a peg leg. He woke up the next morning, knowing what he was going to do.

"I'm an ex-dairy farmer. We make do with what we have," he says.

He took an old wooden pitch fork handle, cut it down to the height needed for Nathan and attached it by drilling a hole down through the bottom of the old prosthesis and screwed it fast to the wooden handle. Then he took the rubber bottom off an old crutch and attached that to the base of the wood to give Nathan stability.

The end result is watching this little guy literally running around his living room with a real peg leg, yelling "Argh," swishing his cutlass through the air annihilating imaginary enemies. Losing his balance a few times and tumbling to the floor, Nathan bounces back as if its all just part of playing pirate.

"The first time I saw the peg leg and Nathan wearing it, it was very traumatic. I was very emotional. I hated it. I guess I hated what it symbolized. That he's missing a leg," says Becky.

After a few moments, she continues.

"Then it was, 'OK. Let's celebrate his differences. It's nothing to be ashamed of.' I couldn't let my issue be his issue. I never want him to be embarrassed. And Nathan absolutely loves it. He loves it because his Poppy made it and that other people say, 'How do you do that?' I think he likes the shock value of it. He's quite a character," says Becky proudly.

And just like that, the tough buccaneer with his eye patch slightly askew suddenly becomes just another little boy as he rushes over to his mother, throws his arms around her neck, mushes his face tight against hers and shouts exuberantly, "I love you Mommy!"

Pirate with a peg leg or a little boy with a prosthesis?

Becky knows that neither one defines Nathan, a very determined, challenged, laid back, happy, sociable little boy who loves to laugh and play. He's just like any other child. Yet he's extraordinary.

Becky's smile stretches from ear to ear as she hugs him back and replies with just as much exuberance as her son, "I love you, too, Nathan."

Coming Thursday: After losing 100 pounds, life begins anew for a Summit Hill native.

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