EDINA, Minn. — Before she pushed ‘send’ on the email, the mother sent two notes of warning about the photo she was sharing: It was not for publication. And it was not for the faint of heart. It was shared simply to illustrate the point that her child is a miracle of sorts.
When the attachment opened, you could feel a lump in your throat jump just a little. The photo showed a tiny baby boy, just minutes old, about to be whisked away from the delivery room of a Minneapolis hospital to the first of many surgeries that would be a fact of the first few weeks of his life in June, 1999. The tiny body was bloody, which is not uncommon for a newborn. Birth can be a messy business.
Attached to the baby's stomach was what appeared to be a gray-greenish flesh-colored orb, roughly the size of a small bowling ball. That was decidedly not common.
Miracle in Minneapolis
If you didn’t know better, you would wonder if the little boy survived this rare birth defect, known in medical terms as an omphalocele. It is a condition that develops in one out of every 4,200 children born in this country, per statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The defect happens when some of a baby’s major internal organs like intestines, kidneys and liver develop outside the body, contained inside a thin membrane.
In fact, on their weekly visits to specialists prior to the birth, the little boy’s parents were told by more than one physician to expect a short life span, or at best to raise a child with many physical and developmental challenges.
Instead, after a rough pregnancy and a trying first few months of life, Amy and Ron Walker’s fourth of five children, named Sammy, turned out to have special gifts, rather than special needs.
Today Sammy Walker is 21, and has been collecting trophies and accolades on the hockey rink for many years. Named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in 2018 as a senior at Edina, he was pegged the Big Ten Rookie of the Year for 2018-19 with the Minnesota Gophers. A year ago, Sammy was the first sophomore named captain in the modern history of the U of M program, and was named team MVP after leading the Gophers offensively.
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017, prior to his final year of high school, many feel the best is yet to come for Sammy, who could join the defending Stanley Cup champions within the next year or two. And all of this from a kid who many educated folks did not expect to live more than a few months past birth.
Prepared for tragedy
After the initial ultrasound a few months into the pregnancy, when they learned there was a problem, the Walkers had been making a trip from their home in Fargo to Minneapolis every Friday for a high-level ultrasound, and an update from one of the dozen physicians on staff at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. They seemingly got a different prognosis from every different doctor they saw.
“One week it would be, ‘we think he’s probably going to survive’ and the next week it would be, ‘there’s no way this child will survive,’” recalled Amy, outside 3M Arena at Mariucci prior to the Gophers’ season opening win over Penn State. “And they would tell me, ‘when your husband gets home from work, go lay down in a quiet room and if you feel him kick, you’ll know he’s still alive. When you don’t feel him kick — when, not if — you don’t feel him kick, you’ll need to make an appointment and we’ll check him out and take care of it.’ It was horrific.”
Amy, who works for Minnesota Made Hockey in Edina, said they spent much of the pregnancy prepared either for a funeral, or to be raising a child who needed much additional care. But as the due date approached, she found herself in a place of serenity.
“Two weeks before he was born I was completely at peace and just knew nothing was wrong with him,” said Amy. “As soon as he was born, Ron and I looked at each other and said ‘He is perfect!’”
Slow, steady progress
In fact, the battle was just beginning for infant Sammy, who needed surgery just a few hours after he was born, and several more times in the ensuing weeks. Doctors at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital said Sammy had the largest omphalocele they had ever seen.
“From what I remember, it was going and visiting him in the hospital. We weren’t able to hold him, because he was in this kind of Plexiglas container that was super weird,” said older brother Ben Walker, who was 5 at the time. “I don’t think we fully understood how severe the situation was because our parents tried to keep it positive and say, ‘Sammy’s going to make it, he’s a fighter.’ But there were definite times where we really understood that my brother might not make it. It was an absolute miracle.”
As his body grew, each day doctors would examine the membrane holding Sammy’s organs, and tighten it just a little bit, gently coaxing the intestines, kidneys and liver back inside his tiny stomach. Even with their third boy getting healthier, the Walkers knew they might not be out of the woods.
“This condition is usually a symptom of a larger problem, and in 86 percent (of children) there are other problems like Down's syndrome,” said Ron, who is a law enforcement agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “He literally fell into that 14 percent.”
Nary a navel
Ron grew up in east Bloomington, and played soccer at UNLV. Amy is from Sunburst, a Montana map dot near the Canadian border, and went to college at NDSU. Ron had just gotten transferred to Fargo by the DEA when he met Amy there. Not too long after that, they had Ben, Jack and Bailey, and a fourth child on the way. That seemingly routine ultrasound early in pregnancy No. 4 changed everything.
“We were thinking we were going to find out if it was a boy or girl, and instead we found this out,” said Amy, who noted that they moved to the Twin Cities when Sammy was a year old to be closer to family. “The doctor called me back after the first ultrasound. That was the weird thing, because you don’t ever want a doctor to call you at home.”
Less than a year after that first tough phone call, when Sammy was a month old, surgeons were finally able to sew his stomach shut with all of the necessary stuff on the inside. They brought him home on Independence Day and Amy notes that Sammy has not needed to see a doctor for anything related to his birth defect since then. Of all the challenges Sammy faced early on in his life, there is one minor human inconvenience he has not dealt with: Sammy Walker has never had to scratch his belly button, because he does not have one.
“When I was at a public pool when I was young, I’d get people staring, but pretty much everyone who sees it thinks it’s really cool,” Sammy said of his non-existent navel. “I didn’t pay too much attention until I got a little older and started playing on teams. I would show guys in the locker room and they would think it’s super cool.”
As a child, the family would tell Sammy his grandfather had stolen the belly button. Later there was talk of getting a kind of bullseye tattoo where his navel would be, to make Sammy’s appearance more normal. No way, Sammy said recently.
What’s up, danger?
Instead of having a child faced with a shortened life, or physical challenges, the Walkers found they had a daredevil on their hands. In addition to not having a belly button, Amy and Ron realized that Sammy was seemingly born without fear.
“Here’s an example. When we taught him how to ride a bike, I spent an hour or two next to him, running alongside and showing him how to hold on, up and down the street,” Amy said. “Ron gets home from work and (Sammy) takes off on his own, down the block. We can’t see him. When he comes back down the street, he’s standing on the seat of the bike. He’s 4 and he’s just learned to balance, and he’s standing on the seat of the bike!”
On another summer day, Sammy was biking with his sister and a friend, and decided the neighborhood sledding hill would be a good place to test out gravity.
“One of the things that made it a great sledding hill was it was quite steep and had two more small hills for jumps at the bottom when going full speed,” Amy said. “Sammy hit those with such velocity that he was launched over the handlebars in full Superman flight, and landed on his head. He was knocked out and scared the girls to death! He must have been too quick for his guardian angel on that one, but just the right speed for the concussion.”
On Sammy’s first day of kindergarten, the Walkers lived close enough to the school that they allowed him to go there with his brother Jack, both of them on Rollerblades.
“I was scared to death, but they just took off down the street on Rollerblades, and he gets to school and hadn’t put any shoes in his backpack,” Ron recalled. “When he got home I asked him how he liked school and his teacher and everything. He said, ‘Oh, it was good, but I’m not going back.’”
Blades with brothers
On the hockey rink, or using those Rollerblades in the family’s driveway, Sammy’s only hockey troubles seemed to come from having two older brothers who were not interested in showing any mercy once the puck was dropped.
“We played a lot of mini sticks and roller hockey in the driveway, and a lot of pond hockey,” Sammy said. “Anytime we played, I don’t think I could ever win. They would make sure I’d lose every time, and if not, I’d probably get beat up.”
Ben recalls a younger brother that always had a smile, unless he was losing. No matter what the contest, be it hockey or darts or a video game, Sammy has always been hyper-competitive, and hates to taste defeat, no matter how it is cooked.
In addition to skating with his older brothers, both of whom have played professionally in Europe, Sammy entered the Edina youth hockey system. Getting the boy they came to call ‘the Stuntman’ home from the rink turned out to be another unexpected challenge for the Walker parents.
“When he was a mite, when Amy would go pick him up from practice at Braemar (Arena), he’d be waiting with his bag out front and would always act like Amy hit him with the car,” Ron said. “His bag would go flying and he’d roll up on the hood, then roll back down onto the bag he’d dropped. He’d had all these medical problems, and then there he goes. That took years off your life.”
Skates, stick, survival
As a junior for the Gophers, that natural fearlessness is still on display nearly every shift where Gophers coach Bob Motzko sends his top line center over the boards. Blessed with fast feet and a quick shot, Walker is known for cutting hard, at full speed, to the net with no regard for if and how he will stop eventually. It’s an on-ice style that at least one family member thinks came from early morning skates with older kids, where they would play with a tennis ball.
“It really teaches you how to be able to handle (the ball) and keep your head up, so if the puck is rolling you’re able to control it,” Ben said. “But for Sammy, when you’ve got a couple brothers out there and they’re chasing you around, you’ve got to be able to figure out how to go from zero to 100 immediately. You’re more worried about your older brother taking you down, so he was kind of forced into that survival of the fittest kind of thing.”
Indeed, survival and excellence under pressure are among the traits Sammy Walker has shown from that June day 21 years ago when he first emerged, into a world of challenges and began meeting them, head first.