Lessons from Otto: ‘We realized how much we needed him’
Bonanza math teacher, with help from students, is back in the classroom after leg amputation
A broken ankle and stubborn infection led Bonanza Junior-Senior High School teacher Richard Otto to make a life-changing decision: To remove his right leg below the knee.
“I was really sick, and I knew what I had to do,” he said. “I opted to have it removed. On Oct. 2, they took it off.”
When he returned to school in mid-November, he was in a wheelchair and his leg ended in a sock-covered stump. Students greeted him with smiles and tears. In his classroom were posters with personal notes from students. Elementary school students had made him get well cards.
“These kids went through this with me. We went through this together,” Otto said about his yearlong journey. “I didn’t realize how loved I was.” Students supported him earlier in the year when he spent time in the hospital. They were there for him again when he returned to school after his leg was amputated.
For the past year, the entire K-12 school has rallied behind the longtime math teacher and coach, who on Dec. 18 donned his new prosthetic leg and stood tall in the doorway of his classroom. More than a month later, Otto is adjusting to the prosthetic and last month was finally able to drive again.
“It’s really a story about perseverance, resilience and relationships,” said Jordon Osborn, principal of Bonanza Junior-Senior High School. “It’s just a powerful thing to be a part of.”
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Otto’s journey started Feb. 9, 2019, while he was hauling wood into his house in Klamath Falls. He slipped on ice and fell, breaking his right ankle in three places. At first, he thought it was just a bad sprain so he wrapped the ankle and came to work on crutches. Two weeks later, he had surgery. He returned to the classroom March 18, but within a few weeks infection set in.
After a week in the hospital, he took daily IV antibiotics for eight weeks and then another nine weeks of oral antibiotics. But the treatment didn’t work. The infection was in his bone.
“I did some soul searching, and went through some depression,” Otto said. “I had some dark days. I was home, and I was alone. … Honestly, the best therapy is coming to school. Everyone is supportive and kind, from the kids to all the staff. Everyone has been incredibly good to me.”
While Otto was recovering, Bonanza student Tayla Berry made a sign for him and spent a week asking her classmates to write messages to one of her favorite teachers. “He has always been a big inspiration to me, ever since I moved here my freshman year,” she said. “I’m super proud of him.”
Bonanza junior Hayley Ibarra said Otto’s journey inspired her to put more effort into her studies.
“It was really hard learning math without him here,” she said. “So when he came back I actually started trying. I think we realized how much we needed him.”
As Otto relaxed in his classroom – talking to students as they stopped by to chat during lunch – he acknowledged that the past year hasn’t been easy. He is still figuring out how to walk with his prosthetic and must strengthen muscles atrophied from surgeries and time spent bedridden and in a wheelchair.
He is thankful for fellow educators, many of whom pitched in. Rob Dunham, a Chiloquin teacher, built a wheelchair ramp for his home, and others drove him to and from appointments and work. Otto is a gardener, and families and friends pitched in last summer to help him plant. He was able to use sick time donated by fellow Klamath County School District employees to the district’s leave bank.
During his treatment, he was pleasantly surprised to see two of his students – Jazmine and Star Garcia – at Sky Lakes Medical Center, where they volunteer. Jazmine personally pushed Otto’s wheelchair to the infusion center. He also saw six former Bonanza students, who are now working in the medical field as nurses and X-ray technicians.
This is the first time in his 24 years of teaching – this is his 14th year at Bonanza — Otto hasn’t been involved in coaching. He grew up in Dufur, Ore., a small town south of The Dalles. After high school graduation, he worked for several years as a wildland fighter and as a logger before going to college at the age of 29. He got his first teaching job in Joplin, Mont., returning to Oregon three years later to work at Chiloquin Junior-Senior High School, where he taught for seven years before transferring to Bonanza.
He was certified a few year ago to teach advanced math and currently teaches algebra I, algebra II, geometry, math 70 and pre-calculus. He is an avid bird hunter and fly fisherman.
Today, he is glad to be back in the classroom, surrounded by the community that has seen him through dark days and personal triumphs. His goal: To be able to walk into Bonanza’s graduation ceremony in June without anyone being able to tell he uses a prosthetic.
“I don’t know my limitations yet,” he said. “Are there things I can’t do? Maybe. I don’t know yet.”