Score! Paralympian a role model for young cancer, amputee patients
Brantford is famous for being the birthplace of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, but there’s another powerhouse player from town who has earned a place on the world stage. Paralympian Garrett Riley is one of the toughest, grittiest and most resilient players that Brantford has ever produced. He’s also a Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) patient who was treated for cancer as a teen at McMaster Children’s Hospital and later received care at the Juravinski Hospital and the Regional Rehabilitation Centre.
Riley, 26, grew up playing travel-team hockey in Brantford, mostly at the AA level. At age 15, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that mostly affects children and young adults.
“It was definitely a really tough time.” — Garrett Riley
“When I was diagnosed, my first question for the doctor was whether I would ever be able to play hockey again,” recalls Riley, whose tumour was on his left knee. In an attempt to save his leg, the knee was replaced with a prosthetic joint. Chemotherapy followed, leaving Riley cancer-free.
“It was definitely a really tough time,” says Riley, who was told that he would not be able to play hockey again. “But the nurses and doctors were really good to me. They made a very difficult process easier. They were always happy to help me.”
He hadn’t lost his leg at this point, but experienced chronic and often excruciating pain. The following hockey season he tried returning to the ice but was forced to quit due to the pain that plagued him.
Trying sledge hockey after an amputation
The next 10 years would bring a host of intense lows and highs – from an above-knee leg amputation to winning a silver medal at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing in March.
In 2017, at age 22, Riley developed sepsis in his left leg. This life-threatening condition is caused by an out-of-control response to an infection and can lead to tissue damage, organ failure or death. In Riley’s case, it led to an above-knee amputation at the Juravinski Hospital.
He shoots, he scores!
“Sledge hockey is 10 times harder.” — Garrett Riley
After the amputation, Riley reconnected with the sport he loved by taking up sledge hockey through the Hamilton District Sledge Hockey Association. He earned a place as a forward on the Hamilton Sledgehammers competitive team, and from there he went on to play at the provincial level before making the national team in 2018.
“I definitely miss stand-up hockey but I’m happy to have discovered sledge hockey,” says Riley, adding that both games require hockey sense and an in-depth understanding of systems and tactics.
Differences include the level of difficulty. “Sledge hockey is 10 times harder. You can’t skate backwards and you don’t have same reach, so it’s a lot tougher to pick up passes and manoeuver.”
The hits in sledge hockey hurt a lot more too. “With stand-up hockey, you get checked into the plexiglass which has some give. But with sledge hockey, you get knocked straight into the boards which have no give.”
Cancer free, but not trouble free
After the 2017 leg amputation, Riley continued to experience pain – this time to the residual limb. He underwent three surgeries over two-and-a-half years aimed at reducing the pain but nothing was helping. Chronic pain caused him to take some time outs from sledge hockey, including taking a break after the national team’s 2018-19 season.
The most recent surgery, in August 2021, happened just weeks before the National Para Hockey Team selection camp in Calgary. Players must try out every year for a spot on the team, even if they are already a member from the previous year.
Rusty from not playing, Riley decided to give it his best shot and made the team. A few weeks later, during an Oct. 29, 2021 game in St. Louis, he suffered another massive setback when he broke his remaining leg in two places after a check to the boards went wrong.
“My second shift on the ice, I ended up getting T-boned,” says Riley. The hard check into the boards broke both the bones in his calf. “I kept telling myself I was done with surgeries, then all of a sudden I was having yet another surgery – this time so that a metal rod could be put in my remaining leg.”
Despite the long healing process ahead, Riley was determined to get back on the ice and represent Canada in Beijing. Being on Canada’s national team didn’t guarantee him a spot, since only 17 of the 20 players would travel to the Paralympics.
“Garrett is an inspiration to young patients…” — Dr. Stacey Marjerrison
Two weeks after the injury, Riley started working out in the gym and by late December he returned to on-ice training. His determination paid off, earning him a place on the Paralympic team where he played three of the four games, earning a silver behind the gold-medal winning U.S. team. “It’s not the colour that we wanted, but still a huge accomplishment,” he says.
Opportunities to achieve your dreams
Back home, fans cheering him on included his HHS health care teams.
“Garrett is an inspiration to young patients, including cancer survivors and those who have gone through a limb amputation,” says Dr. Stacey Marjerrison, an MCH pediatric hematologist and oncologist. Marjerrison is also medical director of MCH’s AfterCare Program, which monitors childhood cancer survivors throughout their childhood, and for the rest of their adult lives. Riley continues to visit the AfterCare Program once a year for a check-up and monitoring.
“Garrett’s story demonstrates that even in the face of significant health challenges, there can still be plenty of opportunity to achieve your dreams,” says Marjerrison.
Riley welcomes the opportunity to share his story with young patients and their families.
“If I could give advice to my younger self going through all of these struggles, I would say that in spite of it all there’s still plenty in life to look forward to. Just keep pushing through, try to stay positive and have confidence that things will get better.”