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Teen meets Will Zalatoris at TPC Sawgrass after battle with paralysis

6 Min Read

Beyond the Ropes

Ian Fenster plays on his high school golf team. (Courtesy Fenster family)

Ian Fenster plays on his high school golf team. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    Written by Helen Ross @Helen_PGATOUR

    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – All in all, the encounter probably lasted less than a minute, but Will Zalatoris has never forgotten meeting Scott McCarron that day at what is now called the CJ CUP Byron Nelson.

    Zalatoris was 9 years old at the time, and he was collecting autographs. Some guys stopped. Others walked right by. McCarron, though, was one of the ones who took the Sharpie and signed his name, asking the rail-thin youngster about his golf game while he did.

    “He never met me; didn't know me at all,” Zalatoris says. “I think that’s something that I’ve just (remembered). It takes 10 seconds to have an effect on somebody.”

    Zalatoris gets that chance this week at THE PLAYERS Championship.

    Earlier this year, Zalatoris sent a video inviting Ian Fenster, a 17-year-old who has battled back from a harrowing bout with Gullain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) that left him paralyzed for months, to attend the PGA TOUR’s premier event. Zalatoris is the teen’s favorite player and the two will spend time together during his visit.

    Ian Fenster was paralyzed for months after developing Gullain-Barre Syndrome. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    Ian Fenster was paralyzed for months after developing Gullain-Barre Syndrome. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    “I think it's very humbling because I obviously only wanted to just be a professional golfer growing up,” Zalatoris says. “… And so, for guys like Ian to, I guess, look up to me, it's very special and I'd never take it for granted.”

    Ian, who plays on his high school golf team, has been a fan of Zalatoris since the Wake Forest grad finished second in his 2021 Masters debut. While he was in rehab, his mother, Risa, reached out to the PGA TOUR, along with other sports leagues and teams, and even apparel companies, in hopes of making something positive happen for her ailing son.

    “I was on a mission,” Risa says.

    She wrote about how Ian contracted a virus during a December 2022 trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with some of his friends. About a week later, he started feeling numbness and tingling in his feet, which was originally misdiagnosed as viral neuropathy.

    Risa wrote that when she and her husband Marc brought Ian home from that hospital, they had to carry their 6-foot son up the steps and into the house. Once he had bathed, sitting on a chair under the showerhead, and gotten into bed, Risa noticed one of Ian’s eyes wouldn’t close.

    That prompted another visit to an emergency room at a different hospital where doctors determined he had GBS, an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. GBS comes on quickly, and among the manifestations are numbness, weakness and often paralysis of the legs, arms and face, as well as the muscles that help you breath.

    Soon, Ian was paralyzed from the waist down. He had to wear a diaper and endure repeated enemas because his bowels stopped working. Half of his face was paralyzed, he had no feeling in his hands and doctors placed a feeding tube down his throat because he couldn’t swallow. Nurses came in every two hours to assess his respiratory muscle strength, but he never had to be put on a ventilator.

    Ian Fenster with his physical therapist (left) and family members (from left-to-right) Ryan, Marc and Risa. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    Ian Fenster with his physical therapist (left) and family members (from left-to-right) Ryan, Marc and Risa. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    “It was really very scary,” recalls Risa, who admits that there were times she and her husband thought Ian would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. “He was in the PICU (Pediatric ICU) for two weeks. Two weeks. And then he was on the cardiac floor for another two weeks where they were monitoring his heart.”

    Ian doesn’t remember much about the days he spent in the PICU. He was frightened, too, as he laid there in bed and wondered what the future would hold. His muscles were taut and even the slightest movement caused severe pain.

    “I was so sleep deprived, just out of it,” Ian says. “… The hardest part was not being able to eat or drink probably, but also just being in bed all day.”

    By early February of 2023, Ian had been transferred to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester, New York, which has an acute rehab facility. He remained there for several months, essentially learning how to walk again, undergoing daily physical, occupational and speech therapy.

    It wasn’t easy.

    “Oh my gosh, Ian, I feel like he is an amazing human being,” Risa says. “He really always was positive, even in the hardest of times. I don't know. I would not have been able to be like that. I mean … for them to put him into the wheelchair, they had a sling that would lower down from the ceiling and a hammock that would slide over and place him into the wheelchair. I mean, he couldn't move.

    “My God, he just powered through every day, bit by bit, little by little. First, it was like wiggling his toes, and then he was moving his leg the slightest bit in bed to eventually putting his knees up. His physical therapist, this guy Bob, I feel like he was Ian's inspiration. He was so positive and so wonderful. And Ian looked forward to their sessions every day.”

    But that wasn’t enough. That’s why Risa and her husband started writing those letters. Her son needed something to look forward to during those months of grueling rehab. Soon the boxes started to arrive, full of memorabilia and logoed merchandise.

    “Another thing that he looked forward to every day was the mail,” Risa says. “He was tired of getting nice letters from his grandparents. He's like, oh, another card.

    “So, it became exciting when companies started sending him things. He'd come back from physical therapy and there'd be like five boxes on his bed waiting for him to open.”

    One of Risa’s emails went to the PGA TOUR where the plan was eventually hatched to bring Ian, his parents and one of his friends to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, this week to watch the TOUR’s flagship event. The video from Zalatoris was sent, along with a box of THE PLAYERS paraphernalia, and Marc filmed the delivery.

    “It was cool. It was really cool,” Ian said.

    On Thursday, Ian, who spent last summer working as a counselor and sports specialist at a camp for kids with cancer, will get to meet Zalatoris and other TOUR players. He also plans to go to the infamous 17th hole to watch the carnage at the island green.

    “Seeing the golf course should be really fun,” says Ian, who taught himself to play by watching videos on YouTube and playing with friends.

    And like Zalatoris, Ian won’t take their interaction for granted.

    Ian Fenster plays on his high school golf team. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    Ian Fenster plays on his high school golf team. (Courtesy Fenster family)

    The uncertain days he spent in the hospital have changed Ian’s outlook. So did the young girl he mentored at camp who had lost her hair due to chemotherapy and was scared to go into the pool until he told her his story and encouraged her to stay strong.

    “That's what I wrote my college essay about it, just how it really shifted my perspective on life and not to worry about small things,” Ian says.

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