By Matthew Shepherd, ’19
Near the end of their senior year of high school, most seniors are looking forward to spring break, spring sports and wrapping up their studies. Blake Haxton was the same when he was a senior in 2009. He had been offered places in many colleges around the nation, including Harvard and Cornell.
All of this positivity ended on a Saturday night in March, when Haxton discovered that he had contracted a life threatening disease: Necrotizing Fasciitis, more commonly referred to as the flesh-eating disease. After a month long coma, he finally learned the name of this disease and what it had done to his body. The disease, which can be contracted through any break or tear in the skin, started off in Haxton’s right calf. In a matter of days, the flesh-eating disease had made it into his bloodstream, going all the way up to his arm. This led to 22 different surgeries and the eventual amputations of both of Haxton’s legs.
Since he was in a coma, Haxton doesn’t remember anything from the month these surgeries took place.
“I actually didn’t find out I had Necrotizing Fasciitis until all of the amputations had taken place. I’d fallen into a coma before they had diagnosed the issue and so I came to after all of the treatment and surgeries,” Haxton said.
Throughout this month-long process, the odds were against him. With an already high mortality rate of 25 to 35 percent, as well as how much the disease had spread, Haxton was not expected to survive.
However, even after this possibly traumatic experience, Haxton never changed his outlook on life.
In an email to the staff on April 27, 2009, about five weeks after Haxton had entered the hospital, Haxton’s former head coach Christopher Swartz said, “I visited Blake Haxton yesterday afternoon and he is doing much better. His demeanor has improved dramatically and he is beginning to turn a corner physically. [His] volume is weak due to the number of tubes he’s had in his throat. But he can sustain a conversation and even has his sense of humor back (perhaps it never left).”
Due to this disease, Haxton stopped rowing. Along with losing his ability to row, he also lost the scholarships he had been offered from colleges around the country.
Swartz had been with him since the beginning of Haxton’s rowing career, and always tried to be an asset to Haxton, both before and after the amputations.
“Blake rowed for me for four years. I knew when he was freshman that he was an excellent athlete,” Swartz said. “After he got sick and then pulled himself through, I told him that if he ever wanted to row again I would do what I could to help him, and I have whenever he asked.”
Haxton did express interest in rowing again in the summer of 2015, so Swartz began helping him train for the 2016 Paralympics. Swartz traveled with Haxton to Rio in early September for the Paralympics, in which Haxton finished fourth in the arms and shoulders single sculls.
Even though the odds were against him, Haxton eventually defeated Necrotizing Fasciitis and went on to have great success at the 2016 Paralympics. Many would expect that the amputations and loss of opportunities would cause Haxton distress and sadness but to Haxton, this was not a complete negative.
“When I found out my legs were gone I had two thoughts,” said Haxton, “The first was that it cleared things up for me. I’d been in and out of hallucinations and painful episodes for days and just couldn’t explain what was happening. The second was a sense of gratitude. It was readily apparent I should’ve died and didn’t, and I know what a huge blessing that was.”