Dominic Szymanski puts his shoes on every morning like any other 12-year-old.
Unlike his peers, the Barrington teen first has to put on three socks. Two are cotton, and the third is made of a special silicon gel that pulls up the length of his left leg.
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That one helps socket on his new prosthetic foot.
It's a process the quick-to-joke Station Middle School student claims takes around 10 seconds.
"Do you wanna time me?" Dominic asks wryly.
It has been a year since a westbound Metra train struck Dominic as he attempted to cross the tracks at the place where Main Street, Cook Road and the Union Pacific Northwest Line intersect in downtown Barrington. The accident robbed Dominic of his left foot and most of the flesh below the shin on his left leg.
Spend some time with Dominic, and you'll find his good humor and positive attitude have not changed since his traumatic injury.
When asked what he can do with his state-of-the-art prosthetic, he quips that he can fly around the room with the rockets housed in it.
When his mother, Gayle Szymanski, says he's been an inspiration to her, Dominic cuts in and jokes that he's so inspirational he keeps a poster of himself in his bedroom for motivation.
When asked what it was like to be kept out of gym class for months before getting his prosthetic, Dominic looks for a silver lining.
"I stood in the back of the room, and I watched," he says.
But the days of watching his classmates in gym class are over. Dominic is back to participating in almost every activity except running.
His family, doctors and others who've been a part of Dominic's journey over the past 12 months say that's a testament to the efforts of his medical team and his own resilient attitude.
"I've had people say to me, 'Oh, you're so strong to be holding it all together,' but I'm only holding it together because he's holding it together," Gayle Szymanski says. "He's always stayed positive."
March 15, 2013
The gates were down at about 6 p.m. that Friday evening as Dominic walked to his dad's home. A train was stopped nearby, unloading passengers at the Barrington Metra station.
When that train passed, Dominic began to cross. The gates were still down, but he figured they would rise once the train fully cleared.
It was then Dominic heard a noise that did not belong to the train that had just passed. He glanced up just in time to see a second train bearing down.
Dominic tried to leap past the train, and nearly made it. But the train clipped him, snaring his left foot in the undercarriage and dragging him nearly 200 feet before hissing to a stop.
Medical experts would later conclude that it was the force of the train coming to a full stop that severed his foot.
Police officers, paramedics and good Samaritans -- later honored by Barrington village leaders -- hurried to help.
He was rushed to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where his long road to recovery would begin.
A train-mounted video camera recorded the accident, but neither Dominic nor his mom has any interest in seeing it.
"Probably not a day goes by where I don't think about it," Gayle Szymanski said.
Two days later, surgeons at Lutheran General were still stripping dead flesh and muscle tissue from below Dominic's left shin. He would have four surgeries in eight days.
"They wanted to save as much of the leg as they could and cut as low as they could," Gayle Szymanski said.
In the end, the team amputated Dominic's left leg at mid-calf.
He stayed in the hospital for three weeks before returning home in a wheelchair.
"I just didn't know how life at home was going to look and that scared me," Gayle Szymanski said.
If Dominic had similar misgivings, he did not share them.
"It was not that bad," Dominic said, reflecting that after losing a foot, nothing seems that bad.
Less than two months after the accident, Dominic was on crutches and back among his classmates finishing up fifth grade at Hough Street School. Things were looking up, and by July he'd been fitted with his first prosthetic foot.
Then came the setback.
In August, about a month after getting the prosthetic, Dominic felt sharp pain at the bottom of his residual limb. A scan revealed he had developed bone spurs that needed to be surgically removed.
Doctors had warned this was a possibility because Dominic was still growing, but the Syzmanskis were shocked it had happened so soon.
The surgery put Dominic back on crutches for months until his limb could heal.
Dominic remained positive through it all, despite losing a prosthetic that had allowed him to walk, bend his knee, squat, sit, jump -- the doctors told him not to -- and pretty much do everything except run.
"I was on crutches before," Dominic said. "It wasn't too hard to go back onto them."
New foot, outlook
Even if he doesn't say it, those around Dominic said they noticed a change in him earlier this year when he had his residual limb recast and got his new prosthetic.
Pov "Paul" Corriveau, who supervises the art club at Station Middle School, said Dominic has always stayed upbeat, but when his new prosthetic came "he was off and running" around the art room helping with different projects.
His mother saw a change as well.
"He's such an incredibly determined and resilient child that I really hadn't noticed it until he got the prosthetic that his mood lightened," Gayle Szymanski said.
Although it does not actually have rockets, Dominic's prosthetic really is state of the art.
It affixes to Dominic's leg with what Ryan Caldwell, a prosthetist with Scheck & Siress Prosthetics, describes as an "active vacuum pump."
"This is because residual limbs typically lose volume/size as the day progresses, making the socket loose," Caldwell, who's worked with Dominic throughout his recovery, wrote in an email.
"This system allows him to be very active and do all the different things a 12-year-old boy should do, without having to adjust the fit of the prosthesis throughout the day."
Caldwell said the boy has been an excellent patient.
"Dominic has done a remarkable job in his recovery and has always had a great attitude," Caldwell said. "His interest in the entire process and the humor he brings has made what I do very enjoyable and rewarding."
Dominic said he does prefer the new prosthetic, but it isn't so good that he completely forgets that it's there and why.
"I know it's there," he said. "I don't have a foot on one leg, so that's easy to notice."
Looking forward, Dominic's doctors say there is a chance he'll get more bone spurs as he grows. He has added at least 3 inches in the past year.
But that doesn't worry the Szymanski family.
"After all of this happened, I've just resolved to leaving it in the Lord's hands," Gayle said. "Whatever is next, we'll face it when we need to."