Bone cancer survivor dreams of "Ability Center" for disabled athletes

BROOKFIELD -- Miraculous comebacks happen in life, as well as in sports. Brookfield native Damian Buchman is a shining example - but his comeback would be a waste unless Buchman paid it forward.

Professional basketball players are some of the most gifted athletes in the world. They often make the extremely difficult, look as easy as a slam dunk! But many of them have never tried wheelchair basketball!

"I was diagnosed with childhood bone cancer in my right leg, in my upper knee and femur. After seven months of remission, I was re-diagnosed in 1992 in my left leg, in my tibia this time. Today, at this time, I am an 18-year survivor," Buchman said.

Damian Buchman is a disabled athlete who participates in wheelchair basketball. Over the past two decades, Buchman has had 30 surgeries for bone cancer, 20 of those on his knees. The soon-to-be 34-year-old is a walking, breathing one-in-a-billion miracle.

"Absolutely consider myself to be a miracle. Me, my wife, who works with pediatric cancer patients today, even my doctor/surgeon, who leaned over to her once in a care conference and said 'your husband is the reason we try so hard.' 17 years later, to be trying to save kids lives," Buchman said.

Buchman is in great physical condition, and as athletic as his legs will allow, but he can't play his preferred sport of volleyball anymore, and pain has become his constant companion. However, Buchman has rarely, if ever, asked "why me?" He's often wondered why he's still alive.

"It's always brought me back to: there has to be a reason, and as I search for that, the project that we're working on, and the organization I started, The Ability Center, has become the manifestation of what I consider to be why I survived. Without a doubt it is The Ability Center and the vision to bring sports, fitness, athletics, recreation to people with disabilities and their families in a 100 percent accessible environment," Buchman said.

Buchman says the American Disabilities Act is fantastic, but outdated, from an accessibility standpoint. Athletic equipment isn't made for the 190,000 disabled people in southeastern Wisconsin. Even doorway entrances can be a problem. That's why Buchman's determined to see the Ability Center become a reality - for the able-bodied as well as the disabled.

"What could come out of that? I don't know. I don't think anybody can answer that, but I feel like it's going to break down a lot of walls and a lot of barriers. We've seen able-bodied kids get into wheelchairs to play basketball, and we just gave them an experience they wouldn't have had otherwise, to see how hard it is to play wheelchair basketball," Buchman said.

Buchman knows the task is challenging. He's talking about a $20 million to $25 million, 200,000 square foot project, but Buchman is undaunted.

"'Impossible' is not a word that exists in my vocabulary. If I am one-in-a-billion, and if I survived something that none of my doctors thought I would survive, and if I survived something that I don't know anyone else to have survived, the possibility of The Ability Center will never be impossible," Buchman said.

When that day comes, Buchman's life will have come full circle. "To be able to walk into that facility, and enter the doors, and see hundreds, if not thousands of people with disabilities and their families have the first opportunity to play, to be fit, to be active, to do it together, that would be the culmination of why I believe I survived. It's all I've searched for since I was 14 was 'how do I want to give back?' and this is it," Buchman said.

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