The month of October has special meaning to Damian McCloskey.
McCloskey, a 6-2 junior forward for McGuffey’s boys basketball team, was born with Marfan syndrome – a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that is often accompanied by defects of the heart valve and aorta.
For McCloskey, the effects of Marfan were found in his heart valve. Doctors discovered an abnormality that caused his aorta to leak into his chest. It had no bearing on the young, athletic kid who excelled in both football and basketball.
As an eighth grader, McCloskey was a standout on McGuffey Middle School’s basketball team with his height and athleticism leading to success on the hardwood. At the end of the season, his doctors recommended surgery. With the fear of his valve worsening, McCloskey was scheduled for open-heart surgery at Children’s Hospital to repair the valve in February of 2011. Doctors warned the eighth grader that his days of athletics were likely over. High school sports would mean a greater strain on the valve. The slightest mishap could be deadly or the aorta could rupture, causing him to go blind in his left eye.
“I laid on a gurney and I knew at that moment, I would probably never play again,” McCloskey said. “It was scary.”
The surgery took hours, but was successful. McCloskey was hospitalized for three days and could not perform any type of physical activity for three months. The vibrant eighth grader was nervous leading up to his follow-up appointment in May. The surgery did not cause any complications, but McCloskey pined for a basketball in his hands.
McCloskey sat in a doctor’s office at Children’s Hospital, and when the doctor entered, she told him what he feared the most: he could not play high school sports. His days playing organized basketball were over. The doctor instructed McCloskey to have a mandatory checkup each October to determine the status of the valve.
McCloskey played pickup basketball games with his friends at the park and shot whenever he had the chance. Every Sunday, he would play at West Alexander gym for two hours, and after football camps he would shoot in the high school gymnasium. As McCloskey entered his freshman year of high school, he still missed playing competitive basketball. The thought of the appointment in October left him restless.
“Whenever (the doctor) said that I wouldn’t be able to play again, I was really sad,” McCloskey said. “My confidence was down. It definitely wasn’t the best feeling, but I got used to it. I wouldn’t let it prevent me from playing basketball in my free time.”
His appointment that October came and went with the same result: the doctor did not clear him to play. Disappointed and dejected, McCloskey was determined to participate in McGuffey’s athletic programs any way he could. During football season, he filmed the Highlanders’ practices. During basketball season, he did the same while helping coaches during practice. He did not miss a meeting or a workout. When the football team participated in a seven-on-seven camp, McCloskey skipped a family vacation to film the event.
His sophomore year began with another October appointment looming. Despite the doctor’s constant pessimism toward his ability to play basketball, McCloskey eagerly awaited the appointment. In Oct. of 2012, again, he was not cleared to participate.
“When I couldn’t play, I always played in the park with my friends and tried to play whenever I could,” McCloskey said. “Before each basketball season, I would always try to get cleared with those October appointments. When I couldn’t, I would feel bad. I badly wanted to play.”
McCloskey continued to assist McGuffey’s basketball team during his sophomore year. When McCloskey’s junior year arrived, Mike Fatigante took over as the Highlanders’ head coach. Fatigante, who has taught at McGuffey for five years, was aware of McCloskey’s condition.
“He is one of our best athletes in the school and he’s an even nicer kid,” Fatigante said. “From the day I was hired, he came to every workout; even though he did not think he would be able to play. He’d beg me to let him shoot around in the gym.”
The junior attended every preseason meeting for the Highlanders and awaited his next checkup Oct. 23 of last year. McCloskey will never forget that day. He arrived at Children’s Hospital expecting the same result as the previous two years. McCloskey did not want to get his hopes up, but since the surgery he had not experienced side effects.
The doctors evaluated his test results and McCloskey got the news he waited almost three years to hear.
He was cleared to play basketball.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that excited about anything,” McCloskey said. “It was definitely a dream come true. I could play basketball again. Not just helping with coaching, but actually being there to help my teammates. It was something I’ve never experienced before.”
McCloskey’s father, David Bradley, watched for more than two years as his son struggled with the idea of having his love of playing basketball taken away from him at such a young age. When the doctor gave McCloskey the news, the family was elated.
“I think it was a relief for everybody in the family,” Bradley said. “October came and it was a stressful time leading up to the appointment. We were afraid of the doctors saying he would need surgery again or even telling him he couldn’t play. That’s something no parent wants to go through.”
Though cleared to participate in basketball, there are mandatory restrictions. He has to wear a compression shirt with a hard plastic plate to protect his heart. He can play only three-minute stretches before having to sit for two minutes. McCloskey doesn’t mind. He is thrilled to have a second chance at playing the game he loves.
McCloskey sat in the Highlanders’ locker room Dec. 6 as McGuffey prepared to open its season against Avella. It had been three years since he played organized basketball and McCloskey could not shake the nerves.
“I was really excited, but nervous at the same time,” he said. “When I sat in the locker room, it felt like forever. When I finally got out there, I didn’t want to stop moving. The game started and I could hear all of the people in the stands and it was like, wow, I am finally back and I can play.”
Despite only being able to play three-minute spurts, McCloskey did not waste any time making an impact for the Highlanders. He made three three-point shots and finished with 11 points in his debut as McGuffey defeated Avella, 46-39. One week later, he scored 23 points in a 75-62 loss to Wilkinsburg.
Wins have come few and far between for McGuffey (0-6, 2-13), but McCloskey’s hard work has been consistent through 15 games. Even with limited participation, he is leading the Highlanders in scoring with 15.3 points per game and rebounds at 11.6 per game.
Fatigante quickly noticed how losing basketball has matured the 17-year-old on and off the court.
“I tell our guys all the time to not take anything for granted,” Fatigante said. “Appreciate what you have and he is a living example of that. The last two years were extremely difficult for him. Because he had something he really enjoyed, lost it and then got it back, I think he looks at things totally different. He is such an incredible kid.”
McCloskey is making up for lost time. He no longer has to deal with the potential heartbreak of a doctor’s appointment every October. For now, McCloskey can enjoy basketball and reflect on how far he has come since his surgery.
“A lot of kids have it worse than I do,” McCloskey said. “I can play basketball and I am fortunate enough to have it. I can enjoy being able to play sports and I am extremely happy to have basketball back.”