Korene Varano had her leg amputated. Then she became a triathlete
When Korene Varano was 12 years old, she got a new bike.
Two months later, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in her femur. She never got to ride her new bike. But 30 years later, she would get another chance.
After 17 reconstructive surgeries, after a lifetime spent in hospitals, on crutches, in a wheelchair, in pain, Varano decided to have her left leg amputated in 2017. In 2018, she went to the Hanger Clinic in North Haven to be fitted for a prosthetic leg.
Prosthetist Rachael Lavigne wanted to know what her goals were.
Goals? Varano hadn’t expected to live past her teenage years. She didn’t have goals. She had undergone surgery after surgery. Hope was replaced by disappointment when her fragile femur would snap once again.
She told Lavigne she wanted to be a triathlete.
She had been a swimmer for years. It was the only exercise her weakened leg could handle. Now she wanted to ride a bike. And run.
“In my head, I believed it wasn’t possible,” said Varano, who grew up in Shelton. “It was something I wanted to do so I was like, ‘Eh, I’ll tell her that and see what happens.’”
Varano, 42, now has three prosthetic legs – one for walking, one for biking and another for running – and has completed four triathlons in the last two years. She will compete at the Toyota USA Paratriathlon National Championships July 18 in California. She and her husband currently live in Portsmouth, N.H., but they are moving to the Ellington area so she can start her job as a naturopathic oncologist.
“This is why I do this,” Lavigne said. “I always say bad things in life are inevitable but I get to be part of the solution. Is Korey a unique patient? Of course. Not all my patients come in and say I want to do a triathlon. Not all my patients have three legs. This is a beautiful, special thing to be part of.”
Initially, doctors removed three-quarters of Varano’s femur and replaced it with a cadaver bone. She ended up having the bone replaced or reconstructed six times.
After she was diagnosed, Varano spent most of sixth, seventh and eighth grade in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Varano attended Shelton High for about a year and a half and competed with the swim team. But the rest of the time, she was home or in the hospital because the bone kept breaking.
The leg broke two more times when she worked as a nurse. She would take a year off for a replacement, recovery and rehabilitation. She moved to an office job in 2008 in nursing research. The leg broke again.
“I couldn’t do anything except swimming and walking and walking was painful,” she said. “I had a total knee replacement. I had a lot of hardware in there. Because of all the surgeries, my knee was kind of fused straight and my leg would get shorter and shorter. I would have my shoes built up. They would add three inches. It was like walking with a brick on my shoe for years.”
The femur was getting shorter and weaker. Her doctors suggested that she use a wheelchair to attempt to have the femur grow and get stronger. That’s when she decided to go to medical school. After three years, she had one more surgery to fix the leg.
A year later, she was walking down a hallway with a colleague during a clinical rotation. And the leg snapped again.
“When it broke the last time, I felt completely defeated,” she said. “I was done. I could not even handle the thought of another surgery that might not work.”
Amputation had been mentioned before. She was ready.
“I didn’t know how active I would be able to be after an amputation,” she said. “I had no idea. I thought having no leg was better than having the leg because I was literally dragging it through life with me like a ball and chain, broken. All the time.”
Doctors amputated her left leg and replaced her femur with her healthy tibia.
When she walked into the Hanger Clinic, it was to get a leg so she could walk across the stage for her medical school graduation from the University of Bridgeport.
With the help of Lavigne, who made her prosthetic legs, and Gaylord Hospital’s adaptive sports program, Varano found herself learning how to ride a bike again. Learning how to run.
“The biggest thing was feeling the wind in my face,” she said. “I hadn’t felt that in 30 years.
“To have my own body powering something that gave me fast forward motion – it was like, ‘Whoa, this is incredible.’ I loved it and I haven’t stopped.”
Lori Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.