By Elaine Sanchez, Brooke Army Medical CenterNovember 10, 2015
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Nov. 10, 2015) -- Cancer may have taken her ability to run, but Capt. Kelly Elmlinger refused to let that slow her down.
Instead, the Army nurse traded running for wheelchair racing and sped her way to multiple medals at the Warrior and Invictus Games and a spot in this spring's Boston Marathon.
"Cancer was really tough, but it opened up a world of opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise," said Elmlinger, who serves at San Antonio Military Medical Center. "I'm still a productive member of society, still celebrating successes in life."
The Cleveland, Ohio, native developed a passion for both sports and the military at an early age. Elmlinger recalls being glued to the television during Operation Desert Storm, and set her sights on joining the Army her senior year.
However, the versatile athlete became conflicted after earning college scholarships for cross country, track and basketball. "I got cold feet about joining the service," she said. "I couldn't see myself giving up sports just yet."
Elmlinger devoted herself to college, but the military beckoned again her sophomore year. This time she trusted her gut and enlisted as an Army medic on Veterans Day in 1998. Over the next decade, she served with Fort Bragg's 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, attended U.S. Army Airborne School, was deployed twice, and had a two-year stint with a special missions unit.
In 2011, Elmlinger applied for the Army Enlisted Commissioning Program and University of North Carolina's nursing school and got accepted to both. She spent the next two years at school and caring for her then-4 month old daughter, Jayden.
The newly graduated nurse requested an assignment at San Antonio Military Medical Center. "My key reason is I wanted to take care of wounded warriors," she said. "I cared for warriors at the point of injury during deployments and wanted the opportunity to close the loop, care for them as they move forward in their recovery."
Elmlinger arrived at San Antonio Military Medical Center in the summer of 2011 and was assigned to a unit focused on warrior care. It was here she decided to readdress a health issue that had been nagging her for more than a decade - tenderness and pain in her left leg. Her doctors found what appeared to be a collection of blood vessels and performed a procedure, but in six weeks she was back and in even more pain.
This time, her doctor suggested a biopsy and diagnosed Elmlinger with synovial sarcoma. "I knew the term, but it took a while for it to click: it was cancer," she said. "I knew from then on my life would be different."
Synovial sarcoma is a rare form of soft tissue cancer with removal as the primary treatment option. Elmlinger weighed her options: remove the tumor or take the extra step of removing the leg. She opted for limb salvage, undergoing the first of three surgeries in June 2013.
A turning point came in January 2014, when Elmlinger was given the green light to rehabilitate at the Center for the Intrepid, or CFI. The avid athlete was eager to dive back into sports, but due to the bone and tissue removal from her leg, was unable to run. Fortunately, someone suggested wheelchair racing. "It was not love at first sight," she said. "But I agreed to try it."
The sport clicked with Elmlinger, who trained for hours each week to gain speed. Faster than ever, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of racing in the Boston Marathon. She qualified by 10 minutes and will participate in the elite race in April 2016.
Just a year after starting the sport, the versatile athlete went on to earn eight medals at national and international competitions - not just for wheelchair racing, but also track and field, cycling and swimming.
Elmlinger, who continues to train for future events, said the games have come to represent much more than sports to her. "I look at these sporting events as more of a celebration of life," she said. "I may be having a bad day, but I look around and see how other people are overcoming challenges … and they inspire me."
Along with sports, Elmlinger was deemed fit to return to her other passion, military nursing. This month marks her fifth back at work in San Antonio Military Medical Center. "Some days are tough, but I'm fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to still serve," she said.
While she holds the Army in high esteem, Elmlinger said she's most grateful for her daughter, who is now 7 years old, and for reaching the milestone of two years cancer free.
"I am so thankful for my doctors, the CFI and for the technology that enabled me to keep my leg," she said. "It was a tough road, but it's what led to amazing opportunities. I've traveled around the world, met amazing people. I feel very fortunate."