Still Standing: A story of personal and musical growth after losing a leg

Lopez stands with other sousaphone players of the Grizzly Marching Band during practice. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Lopez stands with other sousaphone players of the Grizzly Marching Band during practice. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

He marched across the field of the Washington-Grizzly Stadium with 35 pounds of silver-plated brass wrapped around his torso. Stepping with the heavy instrument was no easy feat for Noah Lopez, the University of Montana freshman who once thought he’d never be able to stand up again.

Less than a week had passed since his first practice with the Grizzly Marching Band. He felt nervous and wasn’t sure if he was ready to perform. He asked himself if he remembered all the notes, moves and timing. But ready or not, it was game time. The stadium, which seats over 25,000, was packed with football fans for the first home game of the season. Their cheers melted into a roar coming at the field from all directions as the band prepared for its halftime show. Lopez pressed his lips to the mouthpiece, took a deep breath and played it loud.

Just four years before, Lopez lay in a Maryland hospital bed as doctors told him there was nothing more they could do. His right leg, badly broken in a senseless act of violence, had to be amputated. But Lopez took his loss as a chance for personal growth. He’s used the experience to make the most of opportunities, like filling in for a sousaphone player just before the first Griz game. The moments of silence before Lopez plays remind him of the quiet, bullied boy he used to be. Losing his leg was an awakening for him to stand up for himself.

Breaking Point

Lopez has many artistic abilities. From playing music to designing the “bucket art” on his prosthetic leg, he expresses who he has become. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Lopez has many artistic abilities. From playing music to designing the “bucket art” on his prosthetic leg, he expresses who he has become. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Lopez grew up about an hour west of Baltimore. He moved around the area a lot, which meant he often had to switch schools.

“Middle school was really, really rough,” he said. He was bullied because of his weight. He didn’t have many friends.

In eighth grade Lopez moved to the Maryland suburb Smithsburg. Ten miles from his hometown, he faced more rejection at his new school. He tried to make friends. They called him a nerd and told him to go away.

“It really hit my self esteem hard,” he said.

Things started to look up for Lopez when he was accepted into the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a public high school in the area that accepts students based on auditions. Lopez started playing tuba in the third grade. He picked it because he wanted something loud, something that made him feel fierce and powerful.

“My mom always tells everyone the story,” he said. “One day I just came home from the third grade pulling this big tuba behind me.”

So the summer after eighth grade he went to the school to audition. The school’s principal recommended that Bill Hollin, one of the music teachers, hear Lopez play.

“He showed some real potential, so I said, ‘Alright, let’s give it a go’,” Hollin said. Lopez was off to a good start at his new high school when his life changed drastically.

It was Sept. 14, 2010, the beginning of his freshman year. All of the schools in the area had the day off, but many parents, including Lopez’s mom, still had to work. She told Lopez to stay home, but his friend from middle school, Matt, invited him over. Lopez’s mom was not fond of Matt and his older brother Ethan, who they remember only by first names.

“I knew those boys were troublemakers,” Song Lopez-Kirst said. “They only used Noah when there was no one else to hang out with.”

Lopez said Matt was one of the few friends he had in Smithsburg, so he jumped at the opportunity to hang out with him despite his mom’s misgivings. He walked to Matt’s house and knocked on the door. Seconds later, the door swung open and Matt and Ethan grabbed Lopez and pushed him to the ground. Ethan held him down while Matt held his thigh and bent his leg upward.

“Then, my best friend snapped my leg,” he said. Lopez said he doesn’t know why Matt did it, but thinks it may be because he remained friends with a girl whom Matt had broken up with weeks prior.

He lay on the floor, unable to move and wailing in pain, while the boys took pictures and videos with their phones.

“I was in so much pain that I could barely speak,” he said. That day, he was forced to channel an inner strength he didn’t know he had, but would never let go. Matt and Ethan threatened to break his other leg if he told anyone the truth. So Lopez told his mom that he had broken it wrestling. He was rushed to the hospital, where he would spend the next two months.

After a week of procedures, doctors found the circulation had been cut off in the lower part of Lopez’s leg, so he went into emergency surgery for the second time. This time, surgeons took a vein from his arm in hopes of restoring circulation to his leg. It worked, but it was too late. The muscles in Lopez’s leg had already died. Lopez-Krist was at work when she got the call.

“They said that when they went in there they could see all of the muscles were completely rotted. They were black. It was because they didn’t operate sooner that Noah lost his leg. It was their fault,” she said.

Her heart dropped. She asked the doctor to wait until she and his grandparents got to the hospital so they could be together when they told Lopez. He sat awake all night after hearing the news. The few times he managed to doze off he woke up screaming. Early the next morning, doctors began prepping Lopez for surgery. His mother watched, feeling helpless.

“That was the worst day of my life. He was trying to jump off the table and begging me to not let them take his leg,” she said. Lopez spent the next two months in the hospital, first transferring to the children’s hospital in Washington, D.C., then to the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He was fitted for his first prosthetic, and began to learn to walk again.

“There were some days where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wasn’t eating or talking to anybody. It was really hard.”

Lopez was released right before Thanksgiving, but even in the comfort of his own home, readjusting to life without his leg was incredibly painful, physically and emotionally. When he was able to walk with his prosthetic, though he was very sore, he walked to Matt and Ethan’s house to confront them. He wanted to know what he had done to make them so angry, but they didn’t give any reasons. Instead, they threatened to hurt him if he told anyone what had really happened. So Lopez left without another word.

“I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do.” He kept the truth to himself for two years.

It was his junior year when he broke the silence, first telling his school counselor who then called his mother in to have a conversation. She was shocked.

“I was angry and I was sad at the same time because I couldn’t understand why he waited so long,” she said. “I knew those boys were troublemakers. I knew they were using him. I never trusted them.”

Lopez-Krist had tried to talk to Matt and Ethan’s mother before the truth came out, but said she was met with aggression. When Lopez told his mom the truth, they decided to move forward rather than live through the tragedy again.

Learning to Stand

Learning to walk on a prosthetic leg proved to be difficult at first. As Lopez gets more comfortable he is able to upgrade to a more advanced leg. Each time he upgrades, he must learn to adapt to the new technology. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Learning to walk on a prosthetic leg proved to be difficult at first. As Lopez gets more comfortable he is able to upgrade to a more advanced leg. Each time he upgrades, he must learn to adapt to the new technology. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

After losing his leg, Lopez suffered from phantom pain, a condition where one feels pain from a body part that is no longer there.

“Noah would scream in the middle of the night,” Lopez-Krist said. “I’d sit there with him and kind of rub the bed to make him think you were rubbing his leg so his brain would recognize.”

Lopez returned to school in December, where Hollin and the rest of the school showed an immense amount of support for him.

“When we got him back and he had to adjust not just physically to life without his leg, but also the emotional toll that it took, which was pretty significant,” Hollin said. “He had some pretty dark days, but the teachers at my school and his friends — we just didn’t give up on him.”

As Lopez was getting used to his prosthetic, he would sometimes trip because he couldn’t feel uneven ground beneath him. Hollin recalled one day when Lopez refused help retrieving his tuba from the opposite end of the room. He tripped and landed square on the end of his amputated leg.

“I have never heard anyone scream in pain the way I heard that day,” Hollin said. Lopez was out of school for a few days after the fall. When he returned, he and Hollin had a long talk, during which Hollin said Lopez began to understand he needed to swallow his pride and accept help sometimes.

“This kid, he’s got guts and he’s got courage that I’ve only seen in a very small handful of kids,” Hollin said.

Hollin got to know Lopez very well over the four years he taught him, from his first audition to his senior recital. Along with the personal growth everyone saw in Lopez, Hollin said his growth with his instrument was also tremendous.

“He’s probably developed into the best tuba player I’ve ever taught,” Hollin said.

Hollin is the one who introduced Lopez to the University of Montana. He lived in Missoula for five years, where he taught high school band at Sentinel and Hellgate before moving east. He was friends with UM’s tuba instructor Dr. Ben Kirby, and knew the University would be a great place for Lopez to keep developing his musical skills in an encouraging environment.

“Missoula is a unique place with the type of people you don’t find anywhere else,” he said. “I knew if Noah were to thrive anywhere it was gonna be there. It’s a perfect place for him.”

Marching Forward

When Lopez’s prosthetist told him not to let his handicap limit his capabilities, he took the advice to heart. In high school he joined a sledge hockey team, relearned how to ride a bike and is now relearning how to run. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

When Lopez’s prosthetist told him not to let his handicap limit his capabilities, he took the advice to heart. In high school he joined a sledge hockey team, relearned how to ride a bike and is now relearning how to run. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

In just a couple short months, Lopez said he has begun to find his place at the University of Montana. As a freshman studying music education, he looks up to some of the older students in the music department who have put a lot of time into practicing their instruments.It was at the university where he realized that although he was considered an excellent high school musician, he has many areas where he needed to improve with his instrument.

“I don’t want to just play average like everybody else does, I wanna try to be the best that I can be,” Lopez said. And Kirby, his new tuba instructor, knew Lopez would be no exception to the rest of the freshmen he has taught. They all have their work cut out for them if they want to excel as musicians, he said.

“He’s on that train, like anyone else he is figuring it out,” Kirby said. “If he applies himself in a practice room thoughtfully and diligently he will be a wonderful tuba player.”

Lopez has pushed himself to become involved with the marching band. Because he joined late, he missed the end-of-summer practice camp and only had two practices with the team before the first performance.

“I just kept thinking, ‘How am I gonna learn this? I am not going to be able to learn this,’” he said. But Noah’s section leader took him out onto the field one day for a couple hours of one-on-one practice and before he knew it, he was ready.

On weekends when the Montana Grizzlies aren’t playing at home, he often hangs out with many of the other 11 sousaphone players from the band, going bowling or playing games at one of the older members’ houses.

When Lopez told his mom he joined marching band, she said she was a little worried. The first couple weeks he practiced, she would get calls from him. He would tell her about the soreness from hours of marching on his stump.

Brian Tremper, another student in marching band who plays snare, said Lopez keeps up just fine.

“He’s been very, very, good at coping with a demanding drill despite his leg,” he said. “I don’t know him very well personally, but he’s gotta be a pretty cool person if he can deal with all that.”

Lopez, an inch shy of six feet, is the perfect match for the largest brass instrument of them all.

“Music is what I use to cope,” he said “When I play my instrument, it takes my mind off of everything else. I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Lopez walks with other members of the UM sousaphone section. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Lopez walks with other members of the UM sousaphone section. (Photo credit: Bethany Blitz)

Similarly, Lopez said he couldn’t imagine life without the loss of his leg. He wouldn’t have learned how essential it was for him to stand up for himself. Though the horror Lopez faced as a result of adolescent aggression seems unimaginable, bullying is not uncommon. According to a 2014 UCLA psychology study, more than one out of every five children will be bullied from sixth to 12th grade. And those who are bullied are at an increased risk for depression and academic problems, according to the Center for Disease Control. The harassment Noah faced the day his leg was broken changed him.

“I was bullied. I never stood up for myself, I took everyone’s crap,” he said. “After it happened, and I got back to my senses, I asked myself why I let it all happen. I became stronger.”

Every weekday morning at 8 a.m., he walks across campus and practices for a couple hours alone in the private music rooms before his classes. On football game days you can catch him on the field with the rest of the Grizzly Marching Band and his sousaphone, parading across the field during the halftime performance.

While many Missoulians prepare for the Griz football games by firing up the grill and pumping the keg, Lopez’s Saturday mornings are much different. He wakes up before the sun rises and meets the band at 8 a.m. for practice at the stadium. The band then eats lunch together, suits up in Montana colors and heads out to serenade tailgaters before the big show. After games, Noah finds himself exhausted and heads back to his room in Pantzer Hall to shower and get to bed early.

Marching band isn’t the end goal for Lopez, but the start of his career as a musician. After graduation, he hopes to travel the world playing his tuba in orchestras.

This story, by Brea Gaudioso, was originally published in the Montana Kaimin, the student newspaper of the University of Montana.

 

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