“Life is not a dress rehearsal”. Although its origins are claimed by many, this quote is well known and widespread in the theatrical world. It is a reality check to remind us that no matter how much we would like to write our own story like the script of a play, sometimes our lives can change very quickly and very dramatically.
Austin Hewitt was born and raised in Greentown, Indiana and recently graduated from Eastern Howard Schools in the Class of 2019. Austin quickly became embedded in the theatrical community and has been cast in a large variety of shows including a local children’s theater as well as many performances including Annie, The Wizard of Oz, Bye Bye Birdie, Roger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and his most recent lead role of Horace Vandergelder in his senior musical Hello Dolly.
“After many years of not liking sports, a teacher reached out and suggested theater to me. I auditioned, fell in love, and increased my interest which then turned into a passion that’s still here today”, said Austin.
“After many trying sports on many occasions, I found myself without a muse or outlet. Once theater was introduced, I found myself thriving and enjoying it so much more than anything I had ever tried at that point. Once I was able to join my school productions which were of a much high caliber than what I was currently performing at, that spark of interest turned into passion. My passion for performing only increased when “The Encore Singers” show choir was introduced in my high school which is the highest caliber and difficulty of performing arts that I have ever done to this day. The Encore Singers then became my friend group and then family. This traveling show choir has performed for countless groups in the community including numerous churches, nursing homes and has also performed on a much larger scale at Indiana Pacers games and also at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis”.
For any high school performer, the spring musical of your senior year is something that you look forward to for years. With auditions for Hello Dolly on the horizon, Austin was eagerly awaiting his chance to take center stage and display his talents. However, those expectations took an unexpected turn just months prior.
Since he was a sophomore, Austin struggled with his diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his left foot. In 2016, he had a minor surgery which resulted in the removal of one of his toes. Moving forward, his prognosis was very positive, and he remained in remission for the following year. However, in June of 2018, just months after starting his senior year, the bone cancer had spread to his ankle. On Halloween of 2018, Austin’s leg was amputated below the knee at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
“Leading up to the surgery, I had hoped for the best but was going in very blind not knowing what the future held”, stated Austin. “My performing career was on the line, and I couldn’t help but think that I was finished. I quickly overcame these feelings once I had my first appointment with SRT. They brought back hope for my passion to be alive again, promising a quick turnaround time for me to be performing as quickly as possible”.
“Going into the auditions for our spring musical, I was so worried and very weary of the coming months. My choir director and I both had never dealt with anything like this before. We were both in unknown territory. I knew this was a hard process for the both of us. I wanted to perform as a senior and she wanted to ensure that the show was going to function properly and be displayed as it should. As the musical season was approaching, my director Karol Evenson visited me in the hospital, and we were discussing what the musical will be that year. She always keeps the show title a secret until a month or so before auditions. As her and a few of my classmates were visiting, we were speculating over what the title may be and we all were dreading one musical in particular, “Hello Dolly”. Little did we know that at that time, Mrs. Evenson had already picked this as the 2019 spring show. A few months later we put on “Hello Dolly” in March and I couldn’t have loved it more. We all still miss it to this day”
Austin recalled the day he first met one of his prosthetists, John Arnold, in the elevator at a hospital.
“Meeting John in the elevator was soon to be a Deja vu moment as we would then meet him again in the Kokomo SRT clinic. My mom and I were at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis for a checkup on my amputation and we got in the elevator to go to our proper floor. A man with an SRT shirt on got on with us and my mom pointed out that he was a representative from the prosthetic company that I would be going to. Before leaving on his floor he gave me words of encouragement and then showed me that he was an amputee himself. This gave me lots of promise that the days ahead would be brighter”.
Despite his obvious challenges, Austin was determined to be back on stage, and auditioned for his senior year musical the following March without a prosthesis and sitting in a wheelchair. The show must go on.
Regardless if our loyal readers are theatrically inclined or not, anyone can imagine the adversities of auditioning for a musical in a wheelchair. The rigors of musical theatre have more in common with athletics than one might assume. The physical conditioning that it takes to successfully rehearse and perform intricate choreography and blocking (all while singing and reciting lines) takes a physical toll on the body and anyone could understand Austin’s natural concerns and hesitancies. However, Austin’s bravery paid off and despite auditioning in a wheelchair, he was cast in the lead role.
Finally in January, only a few months before the curtain rose on the show, Austin received his prosthesis and walked out of the SRT offices, looking forward to his next rehearsal.
“SRT made my prosthetic as perfect as I could expect it to be. I was able to dance at my past level in three weeks after receiving my prosthesis. If it wasn’t for the time spent in the clinic working on casting and walking tests, I don’t think I would have been the game as quickly as I was.”
“As a relatively new amputee, it has been extremely rewarding to watch Austin return to his normal activities of daily living in such a rapid fashion”, said Jordan Poynter, SRT’s Director of Clinical Care. “Austin received his prosthesis and within days was auditioning for his local school show choir. Not only did he earn a spot, but it played a significant role in the show that required him to demonstrate difficult and strenuous chorography. This type of outcome mirrors Austin’s motivation and attitude as not only a successful patient, but as a person. It has been a privilege to work with him as a prosthetist”.
“My fellow cast members were perfect”, said Austin. “I wouldn’t change one person or how any situation or rehearsal went. My co-lead “Dolly” (Casey Clark) made sitting in a wheelchair and walking with a walker as fun as anyone could have made it. My other counterparts were just as supportive. They helped me to escape and forget that I was in a disadvantaged state and performing just as much as them. This musical became the “my last” to everything. I had to soak up every minute. It became more special because as I experienced all my “firsts”, the cast was there to do it with me, and that built us more as a musical family.”
The Greentown community was tremendously supportive and proud of Austin’s accomplishments. Many people in the audience never even knew about his amputation and claimed that you couldn’t even tell while he was on stage.
“Patience is key”, said Austin, directed at the future amputees who may have a chance to read this. “Have an understanding for the process. You won’t just go into your clinic and leave with a prosthesis. It takes many appointments before you get the final product, but it’s so worth it in the end. If you listen to your doctor and prosthetists, you will come out on top. Keep your head up because positivity and hope will fuel your determination more than anything”.
Austin looks forward to the future as he will be attending Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, studying Music Therapy. The SRT family is proud to share Austin’s story of hope. His bravery, confidence and persistence is well deserving of a standing ovation.