McKinney, Texas - Eddins Elementary fifth-grader Kyler Stein is no stranger to facing down challenges. Before he had taken his first step, he had more than one to contend with. Now, rehabbing after a major surgery, he has been walking through a challenge greater than he has ever faced.
But, he has never been one to quit, and he’s not about to start now.
Kyler arrived in this world earlier than expected, weighing only four pounds at birth. But, his legs posed a potentially more contentious long-term obstacle. Not long after he was born, Kyler’s mother, Michelle Stein, who teaches fifth grade at Eddins, extended her infant son’s legs toward her one afternoon and realized something wasn’t quite right.
“I was like, ‘Wait…what?’”
Kyler’s right leg was shorter than the other. About two inches shorter.
Thus began Kyler’s relationship with Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas. “We got in, and they were like, ‘This isn’t a big deal,’” said Michelle. “And, I’m like, ‘Uh…’” The doctors advised the family that, in time, there were options they could consider to extend the length of Kyler’s right leg.
In the interim, Kyler reached the crawling stage and was soon zipping around the house. “He crawled with his leg up. He was on one knee, and his right foot was up which made him incredibly fast as a crawler,” said Stein.
He mastered walking as well, supporting his weight on the toes of his right foot. “He never let it slow him down,” said his dad, Jon Stein, who coaches tennis at McKinney North High School. “Walking is a learned behavior, and he just had to learn to do it on a toe at first instead of flat footed.”
When he was older, sports entered Kyler’s life: soccer, basketball and the game he is most passionate about—football. He has played center, linebacker and on the defensive line.
“With football, he would just handle it,” said Jon. “He is kind of like a coach on the field, and he know’s everybody’s blocking assignments. He would be the littlest guy on the line, but he’ll go toe to toe with anybody. He’s not going to back down.”
Other kids seem drawn to him. “Everyone likes him immediately because he’s just that type of person,” said his sister, Kat, a freshman at McKinney North. “And, even with being different…that’s the first thing you notice about him…but people still just want to hang around him all the time.”
As well as things were going for Kyler, too much time walking or running would often leave him with an aching back and hips due to his unorthodox gait. And, his parents knew that eventually, they would need to address his leg.
So, in November 2019, the family and Kyler made the decision to begin the process of extending his right leg, a journey that would require at least two surgeries.
His greatest challenges were just beginning.
“At first they thought that I was going to have to have a halo around my leg and crank it to make it grow,” said Kyler. “And, it was going to be very painful. But, a few years ago, they came up with a thing where they could put a metal rod in my leg, and it has magnets in it. So, every day, you put this machine on it, and it would turn these magnets and so it would make my leg grow.”
In order for the bone to lengthen, doctors at Scottish Rite had to break Kyler’s right femur near the hip and run the metal rod through the length of it. As the magnets caused the rod to extend, the gap between the two pieces of bone would widen, and with time, the bone would grow and fill in the space.
Remarkably, the incremental movements were so minuscule there was no pain associated with the adjustments. “It’s moving like the width of your fingernail,” said Michelle. “That’s why the lengthening process was about a three month process.”
Now, Kyler had to keep weight off of his leg. No walking or running or sports. Swimming was allowed, and invitations from friends and neighbors with pools flooded in.
But, about the time the lengthening process was complete, the COVID-19 shutdown hit, and Kyler was holed up at home like everyone else, still unable to put weight on his leg. Ten weeks would pass before he would be able to get in to see his doctor.
And, when the doctor was finally able to see him, the news was not what they had hoped it would be.
The bone was not filling in as expected.
It was a tough setback, and Kyler battled discouragement. “When he was down, I would talk him up,” said Kat. “It was really hard on everyone.”
To get the bone to fill in, doctors had to reverse the movement of the rod, shortening the gap while extending the recovery and rehabilitation time.
Finally, this fall, after 10 months of waiting, Kyler was cleared to begin putting weight on his leg again as doctors kept an eye on his bone growth. This new stage of recovery provided yet more challenges. He would essentially have to learn to walk again. And, the amount of muscle loss in his leg came as something of a shock to Kyler.
“It was scary at first because I hadn’t put my leg down in awhile, and it felt like I didn’t even know how,” said Kyler. “When I went to physical therapy, I looked down at my leg, and I was just like, ‘Where’d all my muscle go?’”
Now, Kyler uses a walker to help him get around as he gets accustomed to putting weight on his leg again, and he has begun riding a bicycle to school. Physical therapy is an ongoing part of life, and he’s always got friends around who love to hang out with him and can’t wait to see him back at his full potential.
And, while they provide encouragement to him, he provides inspiration for them.
“It was scary because I can’t imagine having to go through a surgery and getting this metal rod in my leg,” said classmate Abigail Hooser. “I would have never been able to do that. It kind of inspires me to be more brave about different things that I have to overcome.”
More challenges loom on the horizon for Kyler.
“So, we go back Dec. 1 and hopefully the bone is filled in,” said Michelle. “If not, he might possibly have to have a bone graft to fill it in. And, then when Kyler is in middle school, what the doctors would do is go up through the knee and cut the bone down nearer the knee because the bone tends to heal quicker. And, he will go through the whole thing again.”
Both of Kyler’s parents are proud of the courage and maturity he has shown through the entire process. “There’s no way to hold that kid back,” said Jon. “He’ll go all day, if you let him.”
And support from the community has been vital.
“It’s great being at school and working here and being a part of a community because this is my 20th year at Eddins, and when we left, Kyler was in a wheelchair still,” said Michelle. “When we came back, he was in his walker, and the kids were really good. They have pretty much been on the whole journey with us. We haven’t kept it a secret. I’ve shown them pictures throughout the whole thing, so they could all be with us.”
And, so Kyler will face these challenges that lie ahead. He won’t do it alone, but he is the one who must walk through it. And, it’s real life, and he’s a real kid, and this is no made-for-tv movie. But, if Kyler has proven anything in his 10 years, it’s that he is not in the habit of backing down from a challenge or letting anything hold him back.
And, with the year that has been 2020 and the uncertainty of the next few months, maybe there’s something to encourage all of us in the life of this fifth grade student from Eddins Elementary.
Kyler, what would you say to someone who’s going through a tough time?
“I would tell them, don’t worry because it will get better—but it takes time. Keep trying and don’t give up because it will be worth it in the end. Try something different to make it, and don’t get down on yourself.”