To the beat of his own drum
Imagine doing something you love for the very last time in your life. Years of preparation and devotion have brought you to this moment and suddenly you have no choice but to give up on a dream. A moved crowd of familiar faces jumps up and applauds with tears in their eyes. The future stares you right in the face but you are determined to make the best of it.
Alex Wegman knows all too well what this experience feels like. Inspired by the music of Eric Clapton, he started playing the guitar on a daily basis, took countless piano lessons, and learned how to play the organ.A desire to one day transfer to the Music Conservatory Of Amsterdam stirred within him.
However, a sudden pain in his left upper arm challenged this dream.
Wegman was only 15-years-old and had been dealing with muscle aches and nausea when the pain became unbearable. He was urged to go to the hospital and went through a rollercoaster of x-rays and other scans. A week later he was diagnosed with bone cancer.
“It was a surreal moment. I came into a world you’d never want to be in."
Week after week his treatment started. Over the course of 10 weeks he went through five chemotherapies and eventually an MRI.
He had to wait two weeks for the result which had two possible outcomes. The doctors would either be able to save part of his left arm or have to amputate it completely.
“Waiting for the outcome was nerve wracking. My parents were informed first and the moment I saw their faces I already knew the result," said Wegman. "I was forced to choose between my arm or my life.”
At first Wegman felt very angry and frustrated but decided that he didn’t want to feel that way for very long. Soon enough, he started to make small jokes and even tried going to the shower using only one one hand. Together with his family he planned a nice trip the weekend before his surgery and on the last day he was invited to play guitar at his local church. It was Alex’ way of saying goodbye to his arm.
"I knew that the next day my life was going to change dramatically, I had to let go of a future I had set in mind. The performance was very emotional, the church had dedicated the service to my disease and a lot of my family was present. There was a lot of crying including myself of course."
The operation was strenuous but when he woke up he could still feel the presence of his left arm, a phenomenon known as phantom limb. For a good moment he hoped that the amputation had not been necessary after all but that changed when his mother entered the hospital room and removed the blanket. There was nothing but an empty spot and tears filled both their eyes.
“My family and friends supported me tremendously. Their cards, stuffed animals, and love meant a lot and helped me through it all.”
The next weeks he suffered from severe nerve pain but his recovery went briskly. His first step to recovery was to try to walk again. Without the weight of one arm it is common to feel unbalanced but Alex picked it up very quickly. Neither his personal trainer nor life could knock him down.
“The only times when I really felt frustrated and angry were the moments when I was by myself. It gave me the time to think about my future and the surreal consequences of my amputation. Aside from that my mental recovery went very well.”
Being a lefty, Alex had to learn how to write using his right hand. For four months he met with a therapist with whom he would practice regularly. Firstly by drawing circles using his hand, wrist, and elbow, and then slowly by starting with writing again. Because of the operation and recovery he had also missed a year of school and needed to catch up. He went back to his high school and got a summer job at an IT store to start saving money for an electronic drum kit.
“My idol during that time was Rick Allan, a band member of Def Leppard that plays the drums with one hand. I decided that I wanted to play just as well as him and started saving up for electronic drums because they allow you to reprogram the sounds on other parts of the kit. This way I can play the snare with my left foot.”
Once Wegman got the electronic drums, he started to practice every day and recorded videos that allowed him to keep track of his progress.
The positive reactions of his friends and family inspired him to get better, and his brother and mother signed him up for the "Kristalhelder Prijs," a contest for young musicians. He won the contest and performed at a local theater, received an award, and a great deal of attention from the media. Various newspapers, a radio station , and a TV show contacted Wegman for his story. He even played the opening ceremony of a festival in a small town nearby.
Wegman finished high school and auditioned for the E-musician program at the Music Academy in Haarlem in the Netherlands. Students in the E-musician program focus on both music recording as well as producing and Wegman was elated when he found out he had been accepted.
He founded a website under the artist name OneArmed and has received countless reactions and positive feedback since. The distributor and head of HXM drums discovered his videos on YouTube and asked him to represent their business at the 2013 Music China exhibition in Shanghai where he gave several demonstrations.
Wegman is now in his third year at the Music Academy and still loves studying there. He is always on the lookout for more opportunities to perform and produces both for himself as well as others. It’s been five years since he beat bone cancer and he continues to receive positive reactions and messages from people all over the world.
“There still are days where I wish that I could go back to having two arms but you have to keep going," he said. "It is hard to look too far into the future since that is what I used to when I dreamt of becoming a guitarist, but it is really cool to be able to help and inspire others, just like Rick Allan did for me. My main message: never give up!”