March 27, 2011
By Larry Watts
As she stepped onto the one-meter board, a group of her friends, wearing white "Yes She Kahn" T-shirts, broke out into cheers and then held their collective breath.
It had been over a two-year battle to reach this point. Cassidy Kahn, then a junior, was about to make her first dive in competition for Indiana University.
To get here, at the Hoosierland Invitational in November 2009, this warrior had endured nearly 20 surgeries. At one point, just before she was about to be wheeled in for the first of 12 operations on her legs back in February of 2008, a rabbi had been called in to her bedside.
"I was terrified," says Kahn, now a senior, of her experience during her freshman year in Bloomington. "At that point I didn't understand the severity of what was going on. My parents weren't there and everything was such a blur. The doctor told me I was in for the toughest fight of my life."
The doctor later told her coaches and teammates had Kahn delayed coming to the hospital by three hours, she would not have survived. She was suffering from a flesh-eating disease, known as necrotizing fasciitis, along with gas gangrene and compartment syndrome.
Kahn's ordeal began four days earlier, on a Saturday night. Her knees had been bothering her and she was running a slight temperature, so she figured she just needed to sleep it off.
"When I woke up Sunday, I had rashes on both knees and my left knee had opened up, like I had bug bite," she says. "I felt awful, stayed in bed the rest of the day and then saw a trainer on Monday."
The trainer advised her to come back to see an older trainer in the afternoon. As the fever and swelling in her knees increased, she visited a nurse and a series of doctors before an infectious disease specialist saw her on Wednesday and advised her to report immediately to the emergency room at Bloomington Hospital. After a review of X-rays, she was quickly prepared for surgery.
To this day, Kahn has been unable to pinpoint the direct entry point of the infection. The disease is usually transmitted to an open wound and dorms, locker rooms and weight rooms can be high-risk areas. The mortality rate has been as high as 73 percent if left untreated.
After three surgeries on each leg and a few weeks in the hospital, Kahn was able to move into a house in Bloomington that her mother had rented. By the time spring break rolled around, she felt well enough to travel and wanted to return home to New York City to visit family and close friends.
"I usually don't feel great after flying, so I didn't think much of it when I was feeling a bit lethargic after the flight," she says. "But then my legs swelled up again and I saw a dermatologist who lived in the same building as my parents. He put a call into the hospital and put them on emergency alert."
Two more surgeries on each leg followed along with another extended hospital stay. She also developed a stomach infection and when her legs were being re-cultured in mid-April, she was still showing signs of infection in them. Rather than close her up, she was sent home with a wound vac, which would help clear the infection until the wounds closed on their own.
While doing physical therapy with a rheumatologist, Kahn complained of having problems with her joints. She was taken back in for two more surgeries in June to remove the bacteria, which had settled into the deep tissue.
"They finally closed me up on June 11, but I was left with massive hernias in both legs after losing so much tissue and muscle," she says. "My left side was really huge and in December, I was taken back in for reconstructive surgery to fix both sides."
Even before her yearlong battle with the infection, Kahn had been no stranger to surgery. A Level 10 gymnast with a vision of making the Elite level and possibly compete in the Olympics, she attended summer camp for five years with Bela and Martha Karolyi in New Waverly Hills, Texas. However, after undergoing her fifth elbow surgery, she was forced to end her career at the tender age of 15.
"By the time you reach Level 9, it (training) is very hard on your body," Kahn says. "I started going to Bela's ranch when I reached Level 7. The training was intense and I learned a lot while having a ton of fun.
"It was hard to give up gymnastics. I had spent 13 or 14 years doing it and I was at the point I was training 35-36 hours a week. My life was in the gym, so when they first told me I was done, I didn't believe them and I started trying to figure out ways I could sneak into the gym late at night. I still watch gymnastics and miss it, but diving has fulfilled that void in my life."
Even though she started diving seriously later than most youngsters, Kahn's gymnastics background made the transition a lot smoother.
"Because I loved working on the trampoline so much, I had a good sense of air awareness," she says. "The biggest hurdle was the change in thought process. The last thing you want to do in gymnastics is land headfirst. I now had to trust myself and realize it was OK to go headfirst in this sport."
It didn't take Kahn long to start making a splash. She twice qualified for the USA Diving Nationals and AAU Nationals. At the 2006 AAU Nationals, she took third on the one-meter board and fifth on the three-meter. In her only year of high school competition, she won the New York City Public School Athletic League championship in the one-meter, setting an 11-dive record of 554.30.
During the fall of her senior year, she began sending video of her training and competition to various college coaches. One of those videos landed on the desk of Indiana diving coach Jeff Huber.
"I was called out for an official visit and just fell in love with the team, the coaches and the entire atmosphere around here," she says. "I just knew this was the right fit."
Kahn signed with Indiana in November. However, two days after Thanksgiving, her father fell and her left leg was pinned under him.
"My knee was sore, but we didn't think much of it at the time," she says. "We got it checked out by an orthopedist and the MRI didn't show anything. I rested it for a month and did some physical therapy before I got back into training."
The knee was still bothering her in May, when she went in for a second MRI. Then she took off for a two-week training camp at Indiana.
"I had two great weeks at Indiana and when I came home I found out I had a meniscus tear and some kneecap damage," she says. "They went in and cleaned it up on July 19 and they thought it would be an easy recovery period."
However, the recovery period took longer than anticipated and then her left elbow, which had already been operated on twice, started bothering her again.
"In September, I was back in the hospital having my elbow cleaned out and they discovered a pretty significant bone spur from an old gymnastics injury," Kahn says. "That was surgery No. 6 for my elbows and at that point the Indiana coaching staff told me it would be better for me to take a redshirt and just train for the year."
Little did she know at the time, but Kahn would soon be in the battle for her life.
Sporting a 10-inch scar down her right leg and a 13-inch scar on her left plus a 2