Patient Story: after a tumor and muscle transplantation, he continues to practice triathlon

Patient Story: after a tumor and muscle transplantation, he continues to practice triathlon

Thomas Heinze is a true athlete. However, after a tumor of the lower leg and subsequent infection of the wound, he reached the limit of his strength. It was only after a successful muscle transplant at the Helios Hospital Berlin-Buch that he slowly got back to his usual life – and is already preparing again for the next triathlon competition. We met with him for an interview.

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Thomas Heinze did not want to admit for a long time that the bulge in the lower leg is not a thickening of muscle tissue, but, perhaps, something more serious. “In 2014, I was injured at the climbing wall. I tore a tendon that was then surgically repaired,” he says and adds, “During the recovery period, I noticed that my leg looked strange. But I thought it was a muscle. After an injury, sometimes body parts don't look quite symmetrical." The sports-minded firefighter continued his training – after all, he had an ambitious goal: “I run in a triathlon club and did triathlon with my friend who is a physiotherapist. He also repeatedly urged me to consult a doctor, as, in his opinion, this wasn't normal." 

However, it was almost accidentally that the orthopedist realized that his friend was absolutely right. “At some point, I went to the doctor, but it was about back pain,” Thomas Heinze recalls, “at the end I asked if he could examine my leg. The doctor was very surprised and said, "Thomas, you have a completely different problem, and it is not your back." In May 2019, with a preliminary diagnosis from his doctor, he was referred to the Sarcoma Treatment Center of Helios Hospital Berlin-Buch. He confirms, “As it turned out, it was an absolutely right decision. In Buch, everything was going like clockwork, and I felt that I was in good hands right away." 


"Now we are moving on step by step," tumor treatment at Helios Hospital Buch

The head of the Erfurt fire brigade's rescue service at high-altitude facilities finally received a confirmation of the preliminary diagnosis after a biopsy in June 2019. “I am a fairly reasonable person and could cope well with various problems for several months before the final diagnosis was made. But when we received confirmation, my wife said that it would definitely change something. It was clear to me that such a disease can, to a certain extent, change a person's personality." However, being a passionate athlete, Thomas Heinze was not going to give up. Instead, he decided: “At some point I said to myself: well, it happened. There are several ways to fight the tumor, and we have chosen this option, on which we are now working step by step." 

No sooner said than done. In late summer 2019, Thomas Heinze underwent preoperative radiation therapy. “With the onset of radiation exposure, for the first time, I had serious life limitations,” he says. “I was getting very tired and really needed an afternoon rest. I did not do that before." But even then his passion for sports won: “Three weeks after the course of radiation therapy, I continued to swim and climb rocks until the operation. During this period, the doctors talked to me a lot about my ambitions and goals for the future – it was cool. " A few weeks after the final removal of the shin tumor in October 2019, a wound infection developed.

“This infection occurs in about 30% of cases after preoperative radiation therapy,” explains Assistant Professor Dr. med. Per-Ulf Tunn, Chief Physician of the Orthopedic Oncology Clinic and Head of the Sarcoma Treatment Center Berlin-Brandenburg. As the wound did not heal, the treating team of physicians, including Associate Professor Dr. Tunn and Dr. Julian Kricheldorff, Head of the Department of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery, decided to transplant the muscle.

We took the thigh muscle and attached it microsurgically to the blood vessels of the lower leg. This graft was necessary to close a non-healing wound after sarcoma removal and tissue regeneration. Mr. Heinze tolerated surgery very well. This was also due to the fact that he is such an athletic and physically healthy person,"explains Dr. Kricheldorff.

Returning to everyday life with sporting ambitions – Thomas Heinze does not give up

After the muscle transplantation in February 2020, there was no wound infection in Thomas Heinze's shin. However, since not only the tumor was removed, but also the calf muscle, the firefighter with a healthy sporting passion is trying to get back to his everyday life. He says: “I must consciously learn to compensate for the absence of the calf muscle. But I feel good and I know that I can do it. I am really very happy with the result." Indeed, he is so pleased that he is already preparing for his next sporting goal: “I am currently planning my next 10K race. And what I definitely want to do again and achieve results again is the Olympic triathlon. It's worth fighting for."

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