ANN FLAHERTY STOPPED counting the number of blood transfusions her son, William, had after they reached about 75. It’s the same with surgeries.
“We lost count after the 20th,” Ann said.
In the coming months, he’ll need another operation, one to rebuild the left side of his jaw. They’re not sure exactly why the bone has crumbled away; it could be the chemotherapy he has had. But the operation will see them take part of his fibula and mould it in. It’ll all but end his skiing career.
Before that, though, comes his Winter Olympics debut at Beijing 2022, representing Puerto Rico in the men’s alpine giant slalom Sunday. Then on Feb. 16, he’ll give the slalom ago. Ann will be there for both events, watching her 17-year-old son come flying down the hill, zigzagging through the flags.
“Our life is like a series of jigsaw pieces, some moments of unbelievable tragedy, but also pride and hope,” Ann said.
As he competes, somewhere in her mind will be the memory of 3-year-old William, all rigged up to drips, blood transfusions and packed full of a cocktail of steroids and chemotherapy. Back then in early 2008, when she and her husband, Dennis, asked the hospital staff some important questions.
“How ill is he out of 10?” they asked. “One, he’s healthy and great, and 10, he’s dead. Where is he?’
“And they gave us a 9.5,” Ann said.
The room went silent.
“My husband and I just sat back in our chairs, took a deep breath,” she said. “And we looked around the room. And we said, ‘OK, what’s the plan? How do we save him?’ ”
THE FLAHERTY FAMILY has been to the Olympics before. Four years ago it was Charles, William’s older brother, who represented Puerto Rico in the men’s giant slalom at PyeongChang 2018. William was there to watch, idolizing his older brother as he completed both runs to finish 73rd on a brutal, windy day when 30 other skiers crashed out.
The two brothers share an incredible bond. Not only have they both been flag bearers for Puerto Rico in the Winter Olympics, competing in the same sport, but William is also partly Charles.
“It’s quite a story for the next time we’re on a ski lift,” Charles said.
It was New Year’s Eve in 2007. The family was in Boston visiting relatives, but on the flight home, Ann, a retired nurse, saw a yellow color in the corner of 3-year-old William’s eyes. They took him straight to a hospital when they landed back home in Cincinnati, where they lived at the time. Charles, then 7, remembers asking his parents why the ER was so busy, and then seeing William go through the doors. The next time Charles would see William would be three months later, as they were prepping Charles to provide lifesaving bone marrow.
For the first week of 2008, they were unsure what was wrong with William. The family was told that in the best-case scenario, it was leukemia. Then came the diagnosis: William had contracted hemophagocytic lymph histiocytosis (HLH), a rare disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s organs. In William’s case it had targeted his liver and bone marrow.
“It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,” Ann said.
The family were told of his slim chances of survival, but they started on a course of multiple steroids, antibiotics and chemotherapy to try to see off the disease.
Ann and Dennis were by William’s bedside for much of the next three months at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, swapping in and out to look after Charles. “The only news I got about Will was through emails every morning from my teacher, who would print them out and read them to me,” Charles said. “I was in, like, first grade.”
Ann remembers sending an email out to their community, asking for daily jokes. “We made sure that we laughed every day,” Ann said. “Yeah, the laughter really helps. They were important parts of the recovery but so too was the mindset of never being a victim and always stay positive and focus on what task needs to be done to make to make sure your child recovers as best they can.”
By mid-March, the medics decided that for William to fully recover, he’d need a bone marrow transplant. They looked for donors, but it was Charles who matched the criteria. He went into quarantine.
“I went in about 12 years before the rest of the world did!”
The operation took place on April 10, 2008, and lasted three hours or so — Charles was put under anesthetic while doctors did the harvest. He remembers waking, a dull ache, and drifting in and out of sleep as his mom, Ann, rushed in asking him to come see William.
William wouldn’t let the doctors put the EKG stickers on him to measure his vitals because it hurt when they took them off. The bone marrow had a 45-minute shelf life, so with 15 minutes left, they brought in Charles (complete with his IV pole) to calm William. On seeing his brother, William stopped crying, smiled and said, “Hey Charles! Want to play?”
“Mom said: ‘You can play once the doctors have just fitted these stickers,'” Charles said. “He was like, ‘OK,’ and then there’s a great picture of me, like, super skinny, like, bone-white because I just gotten a bunch of bone marrow taken out of me,” Charles said. “I was, like, super tired. And then Will’s like all puffed up on steroids and super painkillers, because he’s getting the bone marrow infusion.”
Remarkably, 10 days after the transplant, William was allowed home, though they had to shield William because his immune system was depleted. “When I got home from school I would immediately strip down, jump in the shower,” Charles said.”And every surface that I touched, like, we had to wipe down right after I touched it.”
Ann remembers that time and how unaware she was of what was going on in the world. “There’s some moments that are so horrible, and you never, never forget them,” Ann said. “But I think when you have to stay that focused and zoned in on what has to be done to save your child, it imprints on your mind somehow. The rest of the world around you is a blur. This was in 2008, and there was the economic crash. And I had no idea that even happened, because I was so focused on saving my child.”
The recovery wasn’t easy for William. His kidneys were so damaged after an overdose of amphotericin from a clinic visit that at one point they were weighing a kidney transplant. William was effectively isolated with “Bubble Boy disease,” as Ann puts it. Any slight cold would see him back in hospital, while his body was exhausted and suffering from osteopenia, which weakened his bones. He had to have a bunch of his teeth pulled out. But eight months after he was admitted, he was back at school.
When William was 6, the family moved to Puerto Rico. It gave them a chance for a fresh start, but it also came with some new hurdles.
“I remember one of the bits of William’s recovery was that he couldn’t get sunburned,” Charles said. “So we moved to a tropical island, and my mom put so much sunblock on him so he wouldn’t get sunburn, and he actually became vitamin D deficient. We went back for a check-up and they’re like, well, he’s fine, but he’s Vitamin D deficient. … And they’re like, I don’t know how you move to a tropical island, or your kids run out of vitamin D, but you need to lay it off!”
While Puerto Rico was home, they’d also spend time in Colorado, where Charles and William had fallen in love with skiing. For William, as much as he loved the sport, it had another important role.
“When he first started skiing, it was crucial to his physical recovery,” Ann said. The G-forces strengthened his bones. “Like he had a lot of residual effects from the chemo and the steroids, but once he started skiing and exercising daily and being out in the sun in the fresh air, a lot of those residual effects started to slowly kind of dissipate.”
When Charles was 13, and William 9, they transferred their hobby into a more serious competitive sport, having enjoyed the skiing events at Sochi 2014. They were allowed to pursue competitions under the guidance of coach Sara Radamus (whose son River came 15th in the men’s super-G race at Beijing) after promising their parents their grades would not drop below A’s. They maintained that promise, and it led to Charles being Puerto Rico’s sole representative at the 2018 Olympics.
Charles and William qualify for Puerto Rico through residency, and back in 2018, the family travelled to South Korea to watch Charles ski in the Olympics. William watched as his brother wore the red, white and blue of their home, walking out into the PyeongChang night sky holding the Puerto Rican flag. It all took place just two months from the 10-year anniversary of William’s transplant. The brothers made a promise they’d do it together in 2022.
“I don’t know if [PyeongChang] was cathartic, but it was very cool. It was a kind of one of the pinnacles of my life and hopefully for the children, too,” Ann said. “But I think it was just a fabulous chapter in our lives.
“I would have to say it took me about 10 years to emotionally get over the trauma of having a child that’s sick. Things are very high highs and very low lows.”
In September 2018, tragedy struck the Flahertys. Dennis died abruptly and unexpectedly. Ann remembers through the grief how important skiing was to her boys.
“I think my therapist told me right after my husband’s passing, she said: ‘Nature heals,'” Ann said. “William spent a lot of time outdoors and in the mountains and in beautiful, amazing places.
“It’s given him something to focus on and something to keep his mind off his father’s passing and to something else.”
THAT PASSION AND lifeline have led to William being one half of Puerto Rico’s two-athlete team for Beijing 2022, alongside Kellie Delka, who will contest in the skeleton.
There were nervous moments in the lead-up to Beijing 2022 for William. The operation on his jaw is looming.
“We’ve just kind of been walking on eggshells praying that he wouldn’t break his jaw, as there’s almost no bone holding his face and teeth together,” Ann said.
His left mandible is hollow, and his doctors believe it likely wasted away due to the steroids or chemotherapy from 14 years ago. Had he crashed or hurt his jaw before Beijing, his Olympic dreams would have gone up in smoke and the operation would have been immediate.
“We knew that as soon as he had the surgery that his competitive career would be over. But the surgeon said we can’t wait any longer, you know, this summer it has to be done. He tells me there’s no pain, no numbness, at least none that he has told me about. He is the type of person who will hide the pain and not telling me about it. Because he knows he needs surgery.”
Given he also had a benign tumor removed from the right side of his face in 2020, and will need another removed after the Olympics, it’s not hard to see how the family has lost count.
Still William keeps on going, and on Sunday he’ll line up at the top of the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre run to become Puerto Rico’s 20th Winter Olympian.
“Skiing for me is almost a stress relief,” William said earlier in 2022. “My decision to keep going through all the medical side effects … how many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to go to the Olympics?”
Charles will watch from Florida. There were plans for him to compete at this Olympics, too, but his studies intervened, and he’s now on an internship with SpaceX, working on their new Starship launchpad in Cape Canaveral. William plans to study aerospace engineering.
“Will’s always followed what I do pretty closely,” Charles said. “We’ve always been close, and we did the same sports, went to the same school and, like, just physically, you’ve also shared experiences and whatnot.”
The Flaherty family calls William “The Mayor,” as “he knows everybody, and he loves everybody he meets,” according to Ann. William doesn’t remember much of what happened back in 2007. He now calls them “minor inconveniences,” but the life-saving treatment he received has led his family to be strong supporters of the bone-marrow registry Be The Match and DKMS, a charity dedicated to fighting blood cancer.
Come Sunday, Ann isn’t sure what overriding emotion will prevail through the wave of memories. With Charles, Ann drew breath only when he came over the lip of the hill toward the finishing line, and then she let out an almighty scream of relief and delight. With William, the past 14 years will fly in front of her eyes as he glides through the flags as the family’s second Olympian and a transplant survivor.
“You know, there’s been tragedy, but there’s also been these times of elation,” Ann said. “Just the sheer pride for our sons is fantastic. And I hope they understand how proud we are of them.”