Walking a new path

LIFE HASN’T BEEN EASY for 1987 Tracy Area High School graduate Rick Atkins, who earlier this year had to have most of his right leg amputated after an infection spread, but his physical struggles have made him appreciate his life, his friends and his family more than he ever has before. Photo / Per Peterson

When Rick Atkins lost his leg to a staph infection, he gained a new perspective on life. Today, having embraced his situation, the TAHS graduate looks ahead to a bright future, filled with a new appreciation of his family and friends.

By Per Peterson

Ricky Atkins’ biggest loss has also likely been his most important gain.

As he leans on a cane that has literally and figuratively become an unwanted crutch in his life, the 1987 Tracy Area High School graduate looks back on the last couple tumultuous years of his life, not with anger or a sense of missed opportunities, but with a renewed sense of hope. This, after losing most of his right leg.

“You don’t know what and when something is going to happen in your life — you just have to roll with it and if God deals you a bad hand, you don’t give up, you just keep going.”

Atkins’ problems began rather innocently three years ago, when he hurt his finger while moving some shelving in his garage in Rapid City, SD. He thought so little of the incident that he decided not to go to the doctor. However, his wife disagreed, and after some time, Rick eventually would go to the hospital, where it was discovered that a staph infection had developed.

“The very next day, they took my pinky finger off,” he said.

That was only the beginning. The infection traveled through his blood stream, all the way down to his right foot. Eventually, doctors removed one of his toes.

“It was like, ‘Man, we can’t get this to stop,’” he said. “They warned us and said instead of taking little parts of the foot off, they may have to go up and do a little bit of the leg.”

Atkins told the doctors to do whatever they had to, to stop the infection’s migration. As soon as that round of amputation was complete, his medical problems — including his diabetes numbers — cleared up. But again, that wasn’t the end of it.

Last March, Atkins, a diabetic for eight years, fell on a staircase coming out of a restaurant; his wife caught him, but he twisted his knee.

“The next day, it was swollen, just like a hard rock right on the back of my knee,” he said.

The diagnosis was a hematoma. He tried applying heat to the area in hopes the swelling would go down, but it didn’t work. Shortly after, as his doctor tried to massage it away, it literally moved to the side of his knee, preventing Atkins from putting his prosthetic on.

The next Monday, Atkins was back in the hospital to learn what an MRI revealed.

“It was just like a big ‘J,’” he said. “It was all fluid. They said they have to remove all of that and see what happens.”

Atkins’ assumption that the procedure was nothing more than the removal of some fluid was way off.

“The next day, the doctor comes in and starts dotting my knee; I said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ He said, ‘I hate to tell you, but there’s a little white spot right on the back of your knee — and you know what that is Rick.’”

That’s when Atkins said his life — at the time being — took a turn for the worse. He didn’t know if he wanted to go through with yet another amputation. Was life worth it, he wondered to himself.

Atkins had doubts about putting himself through another procedure and had some meaningful conversations with his friend, Doug Jensen, about undergoing the procedure — including making a decision about life support.

“He said, ‘You’re 50 years old and you don’t know if you want to go through with it?’” Atkins said.

See this week’s Headlight Herald for more on this article.