Cameron Mathison: From Leg Brace to 'Dancing With the Stars'

"GMA" special contributor on challenge of childhood condition Perthes disease.

September 23, 2009, 11:55 AM

Sept. 24, 2009 — -- Actor and "Good Morning America" special contributor Cameron Mathison says that a large part of who he is today is a result of his childhood battle with a rare and difficult medical condition.

Mathison is a noted soap opera actor and a veteran of "Dancing With the Stars," but his mother Loretta Mathison used to think her son would never walk normally, let alone participate in a ballroom dancing competition.

"He was a beautiful little, blond-headed little boy," recalled his mom. "He had the sweetest personality."

His father, Bill Mathison, said that his son was incredibly active until he began to experience pain in one of his legs at the age of four.

"It persisted," Bill Mathison said. "So we took him to a doctor and immediately when he saw him walking with a characteristic limp, he diagnosed him."

Mathison was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease called Perthes disease, which cuts off the blood supply to the femoral bone in the ball-and-socket hip joint, causing it to weaken and degenerate.

"What happens is there was an interruption in the blood supply to the head of the femur bone and that was causing it to soften and cause pain," Loretta Mathison explained.

He was given a leg brace to keep his femur tucked inside his hip joint, which was the standard treatment at the time.

"I remember my mom coming out of the doctor's office," Mathison said. "She'd been crying, she was really fighting back the tears. And I knew -- I really knew that something wasn't OK."

"Initially, it was difficult because everyone looked at him," Bill Mathison said. "And it became an emotional thing for him."

"He was really held prisoner in that brace for four years," added his mother. "You're just trapped in it."

Cameron Mathison's Road to Recovery

Once in the brace, Mathison had to learn to walk again, and it wasn't easy.

"It was very frustrating to learn how to move around in the brace," he said, "to learn how to play and keep up with the other kids. I would try to fit in the best I could -- I mean, I couldn't walk through a doorway, it was so wide, you know?"

"He could clunk along in this thing within a short crutch in the front," his father recalled. "He's a trooper."

Mathison said that the most difficult part of the experience was "being made fun of, being stared at."

For his mother, the hardest part was putting Mathison to sleep with the brace on.

"I would sit with him for as long as it took, just brushing the hair back from his forehead, trying to do anything that I could do to help him fall asleep," Loretta Mathison recalled.

"I had to be consoled pretty much every night, you know, for a long time," Mathison said. "I mean, I think the entire time I was in the brace I had to be kind of, sort of just stroked to sleep. It was a pretty traumatic experience, the going to sleep thing."

After four years, the brace finally came off. Mathison was determined to prove to himself, and that very winter he started learning to ski.

"I really probably went a little bit overboard to prove to myself and to prove to other people that's not what I was or who I was," he said. "Skiing became a really important sort of experience to kind of get out there and have all this freedom and movement."

Lifelong Lessons from Childhood Challenge

Skiing was just the beginning of Mathison's lifelong love of sports. He's involved in a wide range of activities ... including dancing.

"When we saw him on 'Dancing With the Stars,' when he did what I call the Superman dance, when he came leaping off the stage, those emotions just came back," Loretta Mathison said, "because we couldn't have imagined that he would ever have been able to do that."

She also thinks his experience has made him a better, more sensitive parent to his own two children.

"He really listens to them," she said. "He tries to find out what they're really dealing with."

Mathison says he is grateful for the experience he went through, because it taught him that whatever the circumstances, "happiness has to start from within."

"I think a lot of me is different because of what I went through," he said. "I truly believe that I'm grateful that I went through the experience because I like where I am now. And I wouldn't be here without it."

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