Charlie Werner’s broken leg three years ago ended up being anything but a typical injury. The teenager spent seven months in the hospital and countless hours in doctors’ offices fighting vascular conditions and infections that threatened to take his leg.
The Catholic Memorial High School senior has fought off medical complications and will walk at his graduation this month. He will walk across the stage as this year’s recipient of the Molly Burke Courage Award. The award’s namesake is the daughter of CMH teacher and coach John Burke. Molly, was diagnosed at age 2 with leukemia three years ago—just a month before Charlie broke his leg.
“For a little girl like Molly to go through what she has been through, we pray for her a lot,” Charlie said. “I hope one day she can get past it and live a full life like her dad wants her to and like he is working toward.”
Charlie will formally accept the award and $250 scholarship at the CMH senior scholarship and farewell luncheon on Friday.
Charlie’s medical struggle began his freshman year. He heard his leg snap after jumping over a curb with his skateboard on March 16, 2009. The leg was set, and he went home with a cast.
But high fevers and unbearable pain led doctors to remove his cast. They found complications in his blood vessels: Charlie’s arteries were not getting blood to his foot.
After a six-hour muscle flap surgery and an artery transplant, Charlie’s doctors at Waukesha Memorial Hospital told him to keep his foot elevated and to remain on antibiotics.
Charlie was able to participate in the school musical and go snowboarding the next school year. Doctors performed another surgery to try to loosen his tendons so he would have more flexibility in his foot and leg. The surgery and the physical therapy were not helping, and doctors came across another vascular complication.
“That was pretty scary,” Charlie said.
He went through additional treatments, including yet another surgery, to try to enhance red blood cells and promote healing in his foot.
“I had this really excruciating pain,” said Charlie, which led to a second opinion at Frodtert Hospital in Wauwatosa.
“I remember my mom walked by to give me a kiss, and just that breeze of her walking by was really painful,” Charlie said. “That hurt.”
Charlie feared losing his leg. He was given pain medication, and his doctor diagnosed a bone infection. Doctors said he had two types of staph infetions, and Froedtert doctors couldn’t figure it out.
They removed about 4 inches of bone from his leg so the potentially fatal infection would not spread. Yet Charlie remained positive.
“My doctor got in trouble because he let me leave one night out of the hospital just so I could see my friends,” he said. “That was definitely a huge help.”
Charlie spent a majority of his junior year on crutches. He admits he is always in pain, with scar tissue being the largest factor, but he isn’t letting that stop him.
“It’s about getting back into life, knowing that there is a normal factor in my life,” Charlie said. “I struggle with it, yes, but it kind of puts life in a perspective for you.”
No one told Charlie he had been nominated for the award, which started with a fundraiser for the Burke family and ended up as a scholarship funded by donors and an annual fundraiser. Burke said helping these kids pay for college is nice, but the best part of the award is the recognition of the courage displayed by the individual students.
Burke said he received more than 20 nominations for Charlie to receive this award.
“You could tell from the letters that he deserves it,” Burke said. “The majority came from peers, which is the best that they can see your courage and heroism.”
Quotes from fellow students in the CMH news release about Charlie and the award he has received, show that.
“Just when things start looking up for Charlie, he has to face unexpected turns, but he still has hope—Charlie is an inspiration,” said classmate Megan Miller.
Classmate Kathleen Knueppel said: “I have to admit that I could never possibly have gone through what Charlie has … I am inspired by Charlie, and one day I would love to see him healthy, happy and working as a successful doctor.”
Charlie gives recognition back to his family, friends and school, and says they helped him get through these years.
“No matter what happens to me I’ll always know that I have my friends and family there to love me,” Charlie said. “If you stay positive and you have that love of others with you, you can get through anything.”
Charlie hopes to study medicine, and looks forward to attending the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.