Kraig Hammond is nearing the end of a stellar wrestling career at South High. Last weekend he won his fourth straight Cook Inlet Conference championship, and this weekend he makes his final run at an individual state championship, which has so far eluded him.
It's a career that nearly ended prematurely. Last summer, a staph infection took control of his body, left him delirious and nearly killed him.
"I couldn't walk, I couldn't do anything," Hammond said. "I lost all control of my bowels. I would be laying down and I thought I was falling. I had to have help to move."
Hammond was lucky to find help, because the infection hit him while he was in a raft on the Gulkana River. His father, Rick Hammond, was the only person Kraig had seen in three days and they were manning separate rafts.
Hammond, 18, said he felt something in his throat when the infection flared, like he had swallowed a bug. The unpleasant sensation was quickly followed by nausea and other flu-like symptoms that forced the Hammonds to get off the river and set up camp.
Hammond, who wrestles at 138 pounds, had incurred a staph infection in his left knee the previous week during a wrestling tournament in North Dakota. Swelling in his knee had gone down and blood tests showed he was in good health for the trip.
But the infection remained hidden in a bursa sac under the skin, Hammond was later told by doctors. The sac ruptured while he was on the river, sending the infection into the rest of his body.
"It created what they called septic shock or toxic shock," Rick Hammond said. "His vital organs started to shut down. It took me days after that to figure out how bad off he was."
When the infection first set in, Rick wasn't worried, thinking maybe his son had eaten something bad or come down with a bug. It was about 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, when they made camp. Throughout the night, Kraig got worse.
"My dad would shine a flashlight over me and he could see welts start forming on my body and my lips swelled up," Kraig said. "My whole body swelled up."
By morning, the situation was escalating and Rick wasn't sure what to do. He flagged down a group of 12 paddlers, part of the Fairbanks Paddlers group the Hammonds had met on the river a few days earlier. Rick asked if they could look at Kraig and offer any suggestions for action. Linda Winters, Ron Davis and Lou Davis were in the group and came over to take a look.
"If they wouldn't have come down the river, I would not be here," Kraig said. "They came up to me and looked me over and said, 'You need to get him out of here right now.' "
Out of the wilderness
The paddlers helped the Hammonds pack up their gear and lift Kraig into a raft. They started down the river, but had to stop when they reached rapids. Rick tried to take his raft over the rapids by himself, but got hung up on a rock. He decided paddling out wasn't an option, because the rough water could have thrown Kraig in the river and he wouldn't have had the strength to swim or save himself.
Winters had a spot beacon and activated it around 6 p.m. Monday. That was about the time things got foggy for Kraig. He remembers dreaming of a woman with black hair.
"I have never had a dream that was so vivid," he said. "I remember her looking at me and saying, 'Kraig, you're gonna be OK,' and she showed me how to do deep breaths. I woke up with a helicopter above me and pulling me up and up and up."
The helicopter was an HH-60 Pave Hawk sent from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Unable to land on the rocky terrain near the river, the rescue team lifted the Hammonds into the aircraft and took them to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. It took about an hour to get Kraig into the helicopter and another hour to make it to Providence, Rick said.
They arrived at the hospital seven hours after the beacon had been activated. A doctor told Kraig that he would have died if it had taken 30 minutes longer.
In the hospital
"I woke up in the ER and I had a whole bunch of doctors with me and I saw my parents in the corner and they were, like, crying," Kraig said. "I saw two doctors shaking their heads."
He remembers the medical staff hitting him in the chest to make him breathe, later telling him that his heart had swollen so much it was pressing against a lung. He remembers waking up in intensive care, stuck full of IVs and too weak to move his head. He remembers moving his hands up and down his body, trying to figure out where he was and what was going on.
"To sit there and watch your son go through that is the worst experience you can have," Rick said.
Though Kraig had survived the worst, his left knee was still swollen and infected. Doctors were afraid they might have to amputate. A deadline was set for making the decision, and when that day came, the swelling went down and the leg was spared.
Kraig spent 10 days in intensive care, unable to walk or get out of bed. He lost more than 20 pounds. He thinks the daily visits from family and friends in the wrestling community helped him get out of the hospital faster than doctors anticipated.
The experience left a lasting impression. He once aspired to be a pilot, but now he wants to be a doctor and dedicate his life to helping and healing others. His desire to help extends to the wrestling mat, where he wants to spent his senior year guiding and supporting less experienced competitors.
"It's not really as much for me anymore as it is for my team," he said. "I want to see kids on my team be great."
Kraig has twice fallen short of winning a state championship, losing to Kenai's Hope Steffensen in the 103-pound finals as a freshman and to Kenai's Ellery Steffenson in the 138-pound finals last season.
South advanced four wrestlers to the state finals last season, and Kraig was the only one who did not win. He was devastated by the loss, but a year later he regrets that all he could think about was his own disappointment.
"I felt alone last year," he said. "When we won state, we took that team picture and I'm the only one in that picture who's not smiling."
Regaining his strength in time for his senior season of wrestling was not easy. He couldn't walk a mile when he got out of the hospital, but he got into shape by reaching small daily goals. He appreciates each day more than ever and attacks his sport with a renewed vigor.
"I'm not going to waste my time," he said. "It can be taken away from me at any moment, so I have to come in here and work hard."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS