It was a long and arduous trip back to the water, but Dawson Kramer is finally where he belongs.
“I’m happy in the water,” said the rising junior and swim team member at Greenville’s Eastside High School. “That’s a nice, peaceful place for me – my favorite place to be.”
Perhaps it was that affinity for water, as well as the urge to propel oneself through the pool faster than anyone else, that drove Dawson to overcome a series of medical hardships over the past few years that appeared near-insurmountable at times.
Dawson was born with a concave chest (Pectus excavatum), a congenital deformity that causes the breastbone and rib cage to grow abnormally. About four years ago, when Dawson was in seventh grade, doctors discovered that his chest was so concave that it was displacing his heart and lungs and preventing them from functioning properly.
“The summer after my seventh-grade year they did this procedure where they put two incisions on the side of my chest and they put in these two metal bars to pop the chest out,” Dawson said. “It’s a really difficult and painful procedure, but they thought I’d be OK.”
Dawson immediately began showing signs of an allergic reaction, developing a rash on his neck and chest. His condition worsened, and within six weeks he’d lost weight and his appetite, was able to sleep only in a recliner and was experiencing pain at every touch.
“I couldn’t even hug him,” said his mother, Karen. “He was just miserable. He had gotten so weak and skinny.”
Doctors concluded that Dawson was having a severe reaction to the nickel component in the stainless steel bars in his chest and that they should be removed immediately. He was quickly scheduled for a second surgery to have the bars removed and replaced with bars made of titanium.
But that surgery caused more internal trauma due to inflammation in his body and Dawson was unable to attend school as an eighth-grader. Incapable of moving more than short distances, he essentially was confined to his house, relying on instruction provided by homebound teachers to advance to the ninth grade.
“That was the worst time of my life,” Dawson said. “The pain was so bad I blocked a lot of it out. My goal at that time was to just get back in the water.”
His swimming coach at Eastside, Tiffany Watson, took notice.
“He did physical therapy every week, with his primary goal a return to swimming,” Watson said.
First, he simply had to get wet again.
“The first time that I got back in the water, it was with my physical therapist,” Dawson said. “They have this little pool at the clinic and she got in with me and as soon as I stepped in, it was amazing. It was like I was back home.”
It was, in fact, a watershed moment for Dawson.
“His whole demeanor changed,” Karen said. “He just had a big smile on his face and he relaxed and he felt like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ It just changed everything.”
In April 2017, Dawson had to undergo yet another surgery to remove the titanium bars. The procedure was performed by doctors in Virginia, but he had to remain in the state for weeks while recovering from an allergic reaction to the chlorhexidine skin antiseptic used prior to the surgery.
But given what he’d already endured, that setback proved only a small bump on Dawson’s road to recovery. Last fall he rejoined the Eastside swim team with a vengeance.
Dawson earned All-Region and All-State honors while helping the Eagles to their third consecutive state championship. At the state meet, he placed fourth in the 200 IM and fifth in the breaststroke, then swam a leg on the second-place free relay and third-place 400 free relay teams.
“This was the first season Dawson was swimming without bars in his chest since seventh grade,” Watson said. “He was hungry to rebuild, strengthen and help lead the team, and he definitely did that.”
On May 31, he was named recipient of the Heart & Desire Award at The Greenville News’ Third Annual Upstate Sports Awards program.
“You could see him in pain, but he’d never complain, or he’d get out to stretch you knew he was hurting, but you knew he was going to push through it,” Watson said. “I would say this year was really the exciting year. It was ‘Wow’ – this is Dawson unleashed. This is Dawson with freedom in his body.
“It is overwhelming to see what he has been through and the courage, focus, motivation and heart that he has in recovery – and now in successes.”
And who knows what may lie ahead?
“I made it through that, so there is nothing in my life that can hold me back anymore,” Dawson said. “I can use those experiences to help others and inspire others to work toward their goals.”