HILLSBORO - What would others think of his son? Would Dustin be able to do anything for himself? What would he amount to?
Russ Carter used to lay awake at night wondering these things. Most of his day was occupied by similar thoughts.
Dustin's mom and stepmother had heard the same things: Dustin won't be able to walk. If he is able to walk with artificial legs, he won't be able to do it without help. He will need 24/7 care.
Dustin Carter had arms and legs once.
At 5 years old, he was strong-willed, always in trouble.
He was manipulative, mouthy and quite prone to temper tantrums.
But he was a terrific swimmer, could slam the ball in T-ball, batted cleanup, played shortstop and pitcher, and loved to run. He was getting ready for his first season of soccer. It was late summer 1994.
Russ was at work at Worthington Steel in Monroe when he got the call from his ex-wife and Dustin's mom, Lori.
Dustin had a 104-degree fever and was having trouble breathing. At Middletown Hospital, Russ saw the pink and red blotches on Dustin's skin.
"They didn't know exactly what it was, but they knew it was some sort of bacterial infection and gave him an antibiotic to fight it off until they could find more out, "Russ says. "His fever was so high it could have been fatal. They were packing him down in ice. He was delirious."
Dustin was air-lifted 30 miles to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He flat-lined twice but was revived.
Russ still can see the lights of that helicopter, visible overhead as he sped south down I-75.
"His body swelled up; his head got big like a bowling ball; his hands were bigger than mine; his arms started turning black from the lack of circulation, "Russ says of his son's condition.
He was told at Children's that his boy would never be the same.
"Be prepared for the worst, "doctors said. "Don't be shocked by what you see. We're just trying to keep him alive."
Dustin had been stricken by a rare blood infection known as meningococcemia, which is from the same bacteria that causes a severe form of meningitis.
As many as 15 to 20 percent of patients with meningococcemia die as a result of the acute infection. A significant percentage of survivors have tissue damage that requires surgical treatment. This treatment may consist of skin grafts, or even partial or full amputations of an arm or leg.
Dustin lost both arms and legs to amputation.
He had surgery at Shriners Hospital for Children, then underwent three months of rehabilitation. A week after he was discharged from the hospital, he attended a birthday party at his grandparents' house. He was sitting on his dad's knee and lost his balance. He went to catch himself with his hand, but, of course, no hand was there. His dad caught him before he hit the floor.
Dustin was embarrassed.
"Dad, I just wish it could be like it was, "he said.
"It's the only time I've heard him complain, "Russ says.
Russ dabs at his eyes.
"The only time."
Dustin, now 16, wears prosthetic legs at school, but he has given up on the electric-powered arms.
"They can't do what I do, "he says.
Every two or three years, he gets a new set of legs. They take some getting used to.
Dustin lives with his dad and half-sister Harli in an apartment outside Hillsboro, a country town 60 miles east of Cincinnati. But when he was 10, he was living with his grandparents, Linda and Dave Carter, in Monroe.
Dustin didn't like riding to school on the bus for handicapped students, so he prevailed upon his grandmother to let him ride the regular bus.
OK, said the school district, just see him on and off. Eventually, everybody saw how self-reliant Dustin was, and they let him get on and off the bus by himself.
One day, he fell three times with his new legs on the sloped driveway on the way to meet the bus. The first time, he got up. Second time, same thing. But the third time, out came Grandma.
"What are you doing here, Grandma? "he asked.
"Need a hand? "she asked.
"Of course not, "he said. "I'm just being Dusty!"
On her way back up the driveway, Linda saw a neighbor outside.
"You don't know how much I wanted to go down there to help him, " the neighbor told her. "But I've seen how you do it. Just let him go, right?"
"Yup, "said Linda, nodding her head and smiling. She'd had to be reminded of that very thing seconds earlier by Dustin.
"Just let him go."
Stuff happens, but Dustin shrugs it off. He's too busy living.
Dustin tried to use electric arms, but he didn't like them.
During a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, he went to play with some kids and left his arms on the table.
A few minutes later, his aunt came back to the table and talked to Thomalena Carter, Dustin's stepmother. "I know you're used to Dusty leaving his parts lying around, but that freaked those kids out!"
Thomalena nodded and smiled. It does take some getting used to, she said.
"He's just like everybody else, "says Thomalena, who no longer lives with Dustin's dad. "He just has some extra parts."
Once, Dustin and his dad were outside washing Russ' motorcycle. Dustin put his electric arms atop the van to keep them from getting wet. Thomalena came out of the house and told them to move the motorcycle, which they did. Then she pulled out in the van.
She came back up the highway a few minutes later with Dustin's arms in her hands. They'd fallen off the van and gotten run over by a truck - or two.
Good, Dustin thought. I didn't like those things anyway. Now I don't have to wear them.
"I was happy, but Dad wasn't, "Dustin remembers. "I'd have been grounded if it wasn't his fault, too."
The first time you see Dustin's pants-covered legs by themselves, splayed on the floor of the wrestlers' locker room, it catches you by surprise. And then you realize, " Oh, Dustin's not here. He's off somewhere else, wrestling or lifting or clowning around."
The second time you happen upon those legs on the floor, you don't think anything. Why would you? The legs aren't Dustin.
Last year, one of his artificial legs snapped as he was walking down the steps outside the wrestling room.
Coach Brian Williamson heard the crack.
"What happened? "he asked.
"Nothing - just broke my leg! "said Dustin, laughing.
When Dustin was 6, some fellow 5- and 6-year-olds saw Dustin walking around a flea market on his prosthetic legs and asked him if he was a robot.
Dustin laughed, told them that no, he was just a boy, just like them. They persisted.
"C'mon, you're a robot, aren't you?"
"Naw, I'm not a robot. Want to see?"
The boys nodded and then, to their wide-eyed amazement, Dustin raised the sleeves of his shirt and bottoms of his pants to reveal his prosthetic legs and electric arms. He showed them how they worked and what they did. The boys smiled.
Last week, he stumbled on the slope outside the locker room on the way to Greg Rhoads' pickup truck. The wrestling buddies were going to get sandwiches to eat after a weigh-in at Amelia.
"New legs; still getting used to them, "he told Rhoads.
"I like these new ones better, though. They make me taller. I was about 5-7 with the last ones. I'm taller than my dad with these. He has to look up to me. I like that."
Not long ago, Thomalena's brother was drinking beer and laughing at somebody's joke.
"Hey, Gino, how many fingers? "asked Dustin, raising his half-arm, pretending to check his uncle's sobriety.
Gino laughed and shook his head.
Just being Dustin.
It's the ultimate physical and mental combination of man versus man.
In the days before organized sports, men raced on foot, raced on horseback, lifted, jumped, swam. And they wrestled.
In the early days of wrestling, anything went - kicking, biting, gouging, clawing, whatever it took to get your man in a hold or yourself out of one - but rules gradually emerged.
One rule is that one wrestler's foot must be on one line on the mat, his opponent's foot on the other.
Referee Paul Branco picks up the story from there. He recalls the first time he officiated one of Dustin's matches.
"I looked down to see just one foot on the green line and nothing on the red, "he says. "So I asked the other wrestler to put his foot on the line. It turned out to be the Hillsboro wrestler with no legs, and he looks at me and says, 'Do you want me to go get a shoe?' "
Branco said he was "taken aback for an instant, "and then told Dustin, "Just anywhere close to the line would be fine."
Said Branco: "Away we went ... and Dustin won the match."
Thomalena answered the phone when Rosalie Satterfield, then Hillsboro Junior High School principal, called the Carter home and said Dustin wanted to wrestle.
Thomalena didn't think much of it. Sure, why not, she remembers thinking.
"How's he going to wrestle? "asked Russ, who wrestled his first two years of high school. "You have to be able to stand up."
"Oh, "Thomalena said.
Dustin's record after Saturday's league matches was 11-10. The Hillsboro High sophomore is quick and strong, but most of all he's resourceful. He uses everything he has and gives no quarter. Nor is he given any, something wrestlers learn early. Go for the pin.
Dustin wrestles in either the 103- or 112-pound weight class. But if he had arms and legs, he probably would be in the 160-pound class, and he has an upper body to match that weight. That's his advantage - his strength in the shoulders and chest from weight lifting. His disadvantage is obvious: No arms or legs to make or break a hold.
If he keeps on the move and is able to dart in close and use that strength, he can wrestle with anybody. Every season, he's gotten better.
The good, strong wrestlers know what to do to beat Dustin, but he swears The Enquirer to secrecy. "Make them figure it out for themselves, "he says.
"Everything around me disappears when I wrestle, "he continues. "It's just me and my opponent. I love it. I also like it because people know me as a wrestler. 'Oh, there goes Dustin Carter. He's a wrestler.' "
When he won a match 10 days ago at Amelia, the crowd was into it. Lots of cheering and yelling of his name. When he lost, the gym fell silent.
At an opposing team's gym earlier this season, a chant ran out from the crowd: "Dus-tin! Dus-tin! Dus-tin!"
Fans, even from opposing schools, don't like seeing Dustin lose.
After his matches at Amelia, Dustin puts on his pants-covered legs in the hallway outside the gym. He zips his pants, gets to his feet, and jokes with the boys and girls standing around him. Girls gravitate to him. He knows it and capitalizes. He likes to date, but not during wrestling season. "Too tired, "he says, without a trace of self-consciousness.
I'm just being Dustin.
And, oh yeah, he plans to be driving in two years.
"I better be driving by then! "he says. "I don't want to miss out on my senior year."
He also wants to be a sports writer, wants to go to Ohio State.
Gotta think like a writer, somebody tells him. Gotta ask a lot of questions. Can't just write about the games. Interview yourself, Dustin. What kinds of questions would you ask?
"Boy, I don't know, "he says. "That's a good one. I've got to think about that."
Dustin doesn't know when the epiphany hit him.
He doesn't know if it was in the hospital bed, or in rehab, or in a conversation with his dad or mom or stepmom or half-brothers or half-sisters, or a combination of all those moments.
He does, however, remember sitting atop the stairs at home with a half-sister, Jessica, shortly after he came home from the hospital. His mother said to him: "You always did love tipping cereal boxes out onto the floor. If you can get down those stairs, you can tip over every cereal box in this house."
Oh, did he find a way down those stairs.
"And he was bandaged head to toe at the time, "his mother, Lori Carter, says. "They had to use his existing skin (for grafts), and there wasn't a lot left to work with."
It became the rule of the house: Any treat you want is yours, Dustin, but you've got to get it yourself.
Oh, did Dustin have a treat-filled youth.
But no, he repeats, he doesn't know when the epiphany struck him. But he knows it did. This is what you got; this is the way it's gonna be. What are you going to do with it?
When Dustin was in eighth grade, a worker at the Wal-Mart distribution center in Washington Court House saw him wrestle. She invited him to the plant to give a speech.
"Oney Snyder should be the one giving the speech, "Dustin told junior-high wrestling coach Williamson. "He's our best wrestler."
"I've heard people say I inspire them, "Dustin says, shrugging his shoulders. "That's nice. But I'm not trying to inspire them. You know, I hear that a lot. But I'm just being me."
If any place on the planet was made for Dustin, Hillsboro is.
There's Rosalie Satterfield, the former junior high principal, who remembers when Dustin first asked her if he could wrestle.
"Mrs. Satterfield, how do you think I would do? "he asked.
"I don't know, Dustin, but we're going to find out, "she answered.
And there's Brian Williamson, the coach, who has encouraged him all the way.
There are all the kids at Hillsboro High, the wrestlers - especially the sophomores, Dustin's classmates, who make up most of the varsity team. Such a special, caring, loving, close group.
And Larry Stall, principal of Hillsboro High. He will never forget the day he saw Dustin in the hallway, and Dustin said: "Mr. Stall, I just don't understand it when people say they're having a bad day. I'd say we're all pretty darn lucky, wouldn't you?"
Satterfield says Tim Hunt, a Hillsboro social studies teacher, told her just a few weeks ago: "Dustin makes my day - every day."
If Dustin has been helped by all of them, they say they've benefited more.
Dustin unscrews water-bottle tops, pops aluminum tabs on soda cans, unwraps ham sandwiches, writes essays, makes Western omelettes, puts his pants on prosthetic legs every night (a 15-minute job), mows the lawn, swims, fishes, scoots across the floor of the gymnasium like a water bug, wrestles.
Oh, how he wrestles.
It might seem amazing that a young man with no arms and legs can do all these things. But it is amazing only because you don't know him.
What if Dustin were all you ever saw? What if he were all you ever knew? Would he be so amazing, then?
Harli Carter, Dustin's half-sister, was born across the street from Shriners Hospital while her 5-year-old brother was having his legs and arms amputated in 1994.
Five years later, Harli said to her mother, "Bubby (Dustin's nickname back then) doesn't have any arms or legs."
It was the first time she had noticed. The Dustin she knew was the Dustin who did everything himself.
Somebody must have told her Dustin had no arms or legs. That, or she figured it out for herself.
To her, Dusty was just like every other 10-year-old boy.
Now he's like every other 16-year-old boy. Sure, he looks a little different, but only because you don't know him.
This is the Dustin Carter that Harli knows: older brother, student, wrestler, jokester, chess master, omelet-maker, pain in the butt.
Just like you and me.
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