Editor’s note: This story originally was published Jan. 15, 2003. In a sad postscript, Torres could not overcome his cancer and he died later that year. His wake filled the local funeral home to capacity.
The ACT hovers like a vulture over high school juniors, circling until the fateful day when No. 2 pencil meets paper and college entrance hopes have a number to hang on.
And Carlos Torres has forgotten completely about it.
He glides through his house, a thin frame creating the clinks of crutches meeting exposed wood. Down the stairs he hops, avoiding the remnants of his father’s home construction project.
Through a door without a knob, Torres sits in front of his new prized possession. When he remembers, he’ll study for the ACT through a Princeton Review computer program. For now the new computer’s downloaded songs create a soundtrack for Torres’ new room.
In time, the results of the ACT will be mailed off as one of many numbers in a college application. But on this night, those days seem far off. Tests just three days away will reveal a more immediate future.
As a soccer player, legs were everything to Torres. As a sophomore for Reed-Custer’s varsity team, he accumulated the bumps and bruises common to the sport.
In a September 2001 game, the play unfolded like thousands forgotten. Close to the opponent’s goal, Torres says the opposing goalie “cleated” him. The resulting pain shot up his leg and never left.
Games passed and the swelling never went down. Thoughts of a sprained knee or a deep bruise persisted, but Torres limped on. After six months had passed, the Braidwood resident’s tough exterior relented and the hobbled athlete finally sought medical attention.
“I was like, ‘Aww, it’s going to go away,’” said Torres. “It didn’t go away.”
An MRI revealed a growth around Torres’ femur. After talking with doctors from the University of Chicago hospital and Christ Hope Hospital in Oak Lawn, the diagnosis grew clear.
“My dad told me,” said Torres. “My mom didn’t want to tell me.” A form of cancer known as osteosarcoma had wrapped itself around a portion of Torres’ leg roughly an unsharpened pencil long. The news sent Torres into tears. Then, after 15 minutes, the tears stopped.
“I thought, ‘All right, now it’s time to deal with it,’” Torres said.
Doctors told Carlos’ father, Javier, that the malignant tumor looked to be low-grade and treatable with an operation and the avoidance of chemotherapy. The operation, though, meant a choice.
Would you like a metal rod or a dead man’s bone?
As he leafs through images of the removed part of his leg, Torres laughs like they’re baby photos from a family album.
“It’s kind of weird, because you can see through my leg and everything,” said Torres.
As the page turns to graphic photos of flesh and bone, he says he chose the cadaver bone to limit the hospital time required. A metal rod would have required an additional surgery, so he went with the real bone.
He puts the packet of photos down and shows what the cadaver bone allows. Although he still can’t bend it more than a few degrees, the leg walks the road to recovery.
A daily recovery
The hair started falling out during a shower.
Despite a May operation deemed a success, doctors still went ahead with chemotherapy. The weekly sessions came with their own side effects, as Torres’ sisters soon fell out.
The oldest boy in the family, Carlos enjoys the unique relationship only a sibling with five sisters could understand. So when the hair began swirling into the drain, Carlos of course asked his sisters to help pull it out.
“I took out the hair in front and I was like, ‘I wonder if this is how I’ll look when I’m old,’” said Torres, as his sisters laughed at the tale.
Each weekly session meant a dose of chemotherapy and a few days rest in the hospital. When he returned home, he found a house (and himself) filled with kindness … or at least as much kindness as siblings can allow.
“Yeah, a lot of changes here,” said Javier Torres. “They’ve been really good to him.”
Despite the new nickname of “hop-along,” Torres slowly adjusted to his weakened immune system and tired body. When he wasn’t memorizing dialogue from the teen comedy She’s All That, he began tutoring lessons consisting of all the things learned in a school his body wouldn’t let him attend.
Then, with a month left of chemo, the process stopped.
Doctors discovered abnormal growths on Torres’ lung, upper leg and near his tailbone. In order to find out what those growths were, the chemo had to stop while testing for a possible spread in the cancer was planned.
“What’s all the chemo doing? Is it doing any good?” asked Javier Torres. “If you’ve got cancer, that means the chemo didn’t work.”
Carlos, though, knows full well what the doctors said.
“It could have been there, but it was way too small and the chemo sometimes lifts it up to see it,” said Carlos to his father.
That November discovery meant a transformation for Torres. A full head of hair — hinted at in a Homecoming photo with friends now adorning his computer’s wallpaper — slowly grew back. And early last week, he began attending Reed-Custer High School for three periods a day.
“It’s a good thing, going to school,” Torres said. “Because you’re concentrating on homework and books and stuff, and you kind of forget about it.”
As further tests loom this Thursday, some of the weight is back on and only the crutches give anything away. His current look reveals the young man in that Homecoming photo growing up.
Carlos Torres looks healthy.
Wealth of charity
The new computer, on which Carlos snaps a picture of his father on the webcam, sits as a symbol of the support Carlos has received.
The Wish Upon a Star foundation provided the $2,600 in computer equipment. Torres was asked to choose between the computer and a trip to Disney World. Once he realized his whole family couldn’t make the trip, the choice became clear.
As he tinkered with the electronics, organizers of a benefit dinner continued planning for the Jan. 25 event. The dinner, which will include a mariachi band and numerous fund-raising opportunities for the family, does turn Torres a little red in the face.
“I hope they don’t call attention to me and everybody looks at me,” he joked. “I’ll pretend that something’s wrong with my leg.”
The fund-raising comes at an opportune time for the Torres family. Chemo and surgery costs have soared into what Javier estimated at nearly $250,000, with no telling how much more will come.
With everyone from the school to local churches to the employees at Grandstand in Coal City helping out, though, Javier Torres said he’s been amazed at the generosity.
“There’s a lot of people who have helped us and for many we don’t even know their names,” he said.
Sitting in a room adorned with posters featuring scantily-clad women, an everpresent cell phone and the television, Torres immerses himself in the normal teenage boy’s life. Even in the most trying of situations, he’s able to carry on the centuries-old tradition of father-son arguments.
When speaking of the computer, Javier Torres hints to his son that maybe he should look online to find out more on his new round of tests. On the ACT, Torres’ answer would have been “D — None of the above.”
“I don’t want to know what’s going to happen,” Carlos explains. “I don’t like worrying.”