By Ali Fenwick
January 13, 2015

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A little over two years ago, Jack Cadigan was lying unconscious, his heart stopped, in an O.R. at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A team of two surgeons, three anesthesiologists, four nurses, and a perfusionist operating the heart and lung machine that was artificially keeping the 16-year-old alive surrounded him. Jack had been born with a hole in his heart, and the medical professionals were there to fix it.  Over seven hours, they administered a high-solution potassium drug to stop his heart, used a scalpel to make an incision in his chest, a cauterizing tool to slice through the muscle and tissue and then a saw to cut through his sternum and finally a rib spreader to expose the organ that had grown to twice its normal size before sewing up the hole in his leaky heart and stitching the gaping incision shut.

Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Today, the 6’ 1” starting guard at Medfield (Mass.) High bears the mark of the surgeon’s knife, a 12-inch scar down the middle of his chest. But after a sophomore season lost to recovery and a junior year that saw him back on the court but not yet 100 percent, Jack is now fully recovered and averaging 9.8 points and 3.5 assists per game, with a nearly 75 percent rate from the free-throw line.

It took a series of chance encounters to get him the life-saving surgery he needed and months of rehab and recovery to shrink his enlarged heart back to normal size. But don’t let anyone tell you Jack Cadigan doesn’t have a big heart. Because this isn’t just the story of the strength and will called upon by a young man to make himself whole after open-heart surgery. It’s also the story of how that young man then sought a way to pay that privilege forward—how a twist of fate saved not just one young life, but two.

****

It all started with a mix-up. In the winter of 2012, Jack’s father—cardiologist Jack Cadigan III—showed up for one of his son’s basketball games at the wrong gym. It was an away game that night but Cadigan had come to the home gym of Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., where Jack was then enrolled. There he bumped into an old friend and fellow physician he had trained with whose son was playing for the jayvee squad. That friend, internist Steve Bresnahan, happened to have a guest with him that evening, Dr. Kenes Eloy, the Haitian-born medical director of the Saint Rock Haiti Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing health care and social services to a rural community of 25,000 people, located in the mountains about three kilometers from Port-au-Prince. Bresnahan’s wife, Jocelyn, is the program’s director, and Bresnahan had completed many volunteer missions at the clinic there, working alongside Dr. Eloy. The three physicians chatted and at the end of the evening Dr. Cadigan had an open invitation to volunteer at the agency’s medical clinic any time.

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Jack, it turned out, was good friends with Bresnahan’s son, Gabe, and had heard much about the family’s many trips to the Saint Rock orphanage and clinic and was already sold on the experience. He urged his dad to make good on his promise to join the other doctors there. “Jack really was the force behind going to Haiti. He was like, ‘C’mon dad let’s go, we gotta do this, dad,’” remembers his mother, Debbie.

So that August, Jack, his dad and one of his older sisters, Andrea, set off for the island nation. Jack and his sister spent their days taking care of children in the orphanage and helping out in the clinic, where their father saw cases all day as a never-ending line of people snaked out the door. There, collecting dust in a corner of the examination room, was a rickety old EKG machine that had been donated eight years before. Someone had once tried to use it a couple of years back but couldn’t get it to work. A visiting high school volunteer had taken it back to the States to tinker with and then, improbably, had brought it back down again once it had been repaired.

The EKG machine, donated eight months before it was used on Jack, was collecting dust in the corner of an examination room.
Courtesy of the Cadigan family

​Cadigan figured he might as well try to get the outdated machine up and running, despite the fact that heart disease is rare in third-world countries like Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. “I just thought, ‘Gee, I’m a cardiologist, I should probably try to get the machine working just in case it helps someone,’” he says.

In a country with scarce electricity, getting the EKG powered up was no simple task. He was finally able to get it going using a gas-powered generator and—“Just then, Jack was walking by and I said, ‘Jack c’mere. Let’s test this thing out.’ And I hitched him up and out came the strip.” Cadigan paled at the readout. “I thought, oh my goodness—it was just absolutely abnormal. He looked at me and asked, ‘Dad, am I okay?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,’ as if I was involved with the machine. But my heart sank because I knew something was very wrong with him.” He listened to his son’s heartbeat with his stethoscope and heard exactly what he hoped he wouldn’t—a murmur.

The family finished out their nine-day stay in Haiti, but on their first morning back in the States, Dr. Cadigan woke Jack to reveal that his EKG readout had not, in fact, been fine. At his medical office, he hooked Jack up to an echocardiogram machine, which provided ultrasound imagery of the heart. “The minute the tech put the probe on Jack’s chest, the picture comes up and it takes about two seconds to say, There it is,” Cadigan says. “It was just—Whoa. The right heart should be very small relative to the left and his right heart was maybe three times larger than his left heart—it was just enormous.”

"My heart sank because I knew something was very wrong with him," said Dr. Cadigan
Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Jack had always been the picture of health – an active, athletic kid who had played tennis, football and ice hockey before falling in love with basketball. He had never complained of any symptoms that would have given cause for any concern. But these results showed that he was at risk of collapse and even sudden death.

“I think when I first heard about Jack I almost didn’t believe it,” says Debbie. “It wasn’t until we got to Mass General and saw how alarmed people were and [that] they were even surprised that he could be walking around. [They were] asking, ‘How is this person functioning, how did this person play sports?’ It was then that it really struck me.”

“He really was a healthy guy in every way, so, as a cardiologist, I would never suspect anything. And never did suspect anything,” Cadigan says. Jack’s two oldest sisters had had echocardiograms as kids at their schools. His third sister, who had also traveled to Haiti, never had an echo done but was fine in routine exams. But Jack, the youngest of four, had never been examined by his dad. “It’s like videotape—reams of the first child and then the tape is down to nothing [by the fourth], and that was Jack,” Cadigan says. “He looked healthy, he was healthy—I thought.”

****

The night before Jack’s surgery, he wanted to play one more game of pick-up in his backyard. “So he and I went out and he was shooting around—layups and you know, like he was completely normal,” his dad recalls. The morning of the surgery on Oct. 12, 2012, Jack was his exuberant self, horsing around the hospital parking lot in the pre-dawn hours before checking in. “He was laughing and kidding, running down the parking lot, running into the entrance and, as if he was dunking a basketball, he was hitting the tops of doors and things,” Debbie remembers.

It would be a drastic contrast to the boy wheeled out of the OR into the ICU some eight hours later.

“He just looked awful and his sisters all walked in and we thought, ‘We’re going to be brave, we’re going to walk in,’ and all three of them burst into tears,” Debbie says.

It would take him a significant amount of time to bounce back. Forced to spend a week recuperating in the hospital while elderly cardiac patients in the ward headed home after a day or two, Jack endured multiple complications even after he was released and he questioned whether he was ever going to be able to come back on the court.

“It was a few days after my surgery when I was still in the hospital and I could still barely move, and it was like, ‘How am I going to be able to play basketball?’” Jack says.

Jack endured multiple complications after his surgery.
Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Then one evening, as he lay in his hospital bed watching a preseason Celtics game, something the announcer said grabbed his attention—the Celts’ small forward Jeff Green was making his comeback that night after open-heart surgery the season before.

“That really gave me a lot of hope,” Jack recalls. “Because if he could return to play at the highest level, then why couldn’t I return to play just for my high school?”

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From his vantage point in that hospital bed, it seemed nearly impossible, but at the moment he saw Green slam a ball through the hoop, Jack renewed his determination to get back on the hardwood. “He said, ‘I want to see if I can make it back by the end of my basketball season,” Jack’s father recalls. “Which I didn’t ever think he could do. Or that it was even advisable.”

But Jack was eventually cleared and went straight into training. He spent hours shooting on his hoop at home. Like a strong, steady heartbeat, the rhythmic thump of a basketball on pavement had long provided a background soundtrack to life in the Cadigan household. An eerie silence had settled while Jack had been out of commission, but finally that comforting pulse was back. “Day after day after day he worked out and he got himself back,” his dad says. “He actually dressed for his final game of the season.”

That evening in his hospital bed, Jack couldn’t know that he would reach his goal, or that a year later he would get to meet his inspiration, Green, and have dinner with him after being honored at center court by the Celtics for their “Hometown Heroes” campaign. He and his sports idol would compare notes on their surgeries and bond over their matching scars. But Jack did know that he had found the inner fight and inspiration he would need to battle back. 

Boston Celtics/NBA.com

“To see that [Green] was able to do that, from coming back from surgery, really gave me hope that I could come back and train hard and be able to play,” Jack says.

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Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Meanwhile that November, some 3,200 miles away in Haiti, a young orphan named Lourdina Chery was helped into the Saint Rock Haiti Foundation clinic. Not yet 14, she couldn’t walk more than a few steps and displayed textbook signs of heart failure: shortness of breath, fluid in her lungs and limbs, fatigue and an increased heart rate. The same EKG machine that had diagnosed Jack’s heart condition just a few months before was called into service again, the same electrodes Jack’s father had applied to him were attached to Lourdina, and once again, the machine delivered a readout signaling the worst. Lourdina had near end-stage congestive heart failure. Doctors would later discover that she had a condition called rheumatic heart disease that had damaged her ventral and mitral valves. Developed when a strep infection that can easily be remedied with antibiotics goes untreated, it is a condition rarely seen in the U.S.

Lourdina was already a survivor. She had stayed alive while buried under a pile of concrete rubble for three days after her school building pancaked in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Her teacher and her classmates all perished, but Lourdina, her leg broken by a concrete pillar, found the lunch her teacher had brought to school that day and was able to subsist on it until rescuers could free her. She was her class’s lone survivor.

Lourdina was a survivor of Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010 that created mass graves, as shown here.
Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Back in Boston, word reached Jack, barely a month after his surgery, that the same EKG machine that had saved his life had diagnosed another teen in dire need of heart surgery. This time, however, the machine’s readout was the equivalent of a death sentence. If Lourdina stayed in Haiti, where there is no hospital equipped to perform open-heart surgery, she would surely die.

I thought it was pretty unfair that just because I’m from the United States, I deserved to live over her, and I deserved to have this open heart surgery over her,” he says. Though he had never met Lourdina, he felt he had to do something. So during a routine checkup with his heart surgeon, Dr. Tom MacGillivray, at Mass General, Jack said he had a favor to ask.

“I thought it was to try to get him back to practice or play a game,” MacGillivray says. Instead, Jack told him about Lourdina. “He asked if there was any way that we could figure out how to help take care of her. I remember being completely moved by that. He was not even nearly completely recovered from his own medical condition and he was already starting to think and ask about someone else.”

MacGillivray promised that if Jack could get Lourdina to Boston, he would provide the lifesaving heart surgery she needed for free.

****

Getting Lourdina to the U.S. would be an uphill battle, but with the help of the Saint Rock Haiti Foundation, nearly 100 people came together to raise funds and cut through the bureaucratic red tape to get her a passport, and Lourdina was finally flown to the U.S. in March 2013. She stayed with the Bresnahans while awaiting her surgery in April. Unable to speak the language (Lourdina speaks Creole), she placed her trust in the team of strangers who had promised to make her better.

Courtesy of the Cadigan family

“Though she understood she was going to have an operation, she didn’t really grasp what was going to happen,” Debbie says. “Jack showed her his scar, and at that point she understood that Jack had gone through the same thing. That was a huge reassurance to her that she was going to be okay.”

The Cadigans continue to stay in touch with Lourdina, who is healthy and thriving, enrolled in school in Haiti again after being too sick before her surgery to attend for two years. Jack, who has been back to Haiti twice since his surgery, founded a charitable club at Medfield High called Hope for Haiti, which attracted about 40 members and recently sold 130 rubber bracelets at a dollar each to raise funds for the Saint Rock Foundation.

Courtesy of the Cadigan family

Jack hopes to play basketball in college and is considering a career in medicine, but more than anything, he wants to continue to give back to the country that gave him so much. “The experience down there was absolutely unbelievable,” he says. “The living conditions are deplorable and the poverty is insane but with that you see these people that are so grateful for the lives that they live and they’re so grateful for the help that you’re providing them.”

****

Now enrolled at his hometown high school and back on the court for his first fully healthy season since his surgery, Jack is finally at his peak fitness, not just back to his old self, but even better.

Before his operation, Jack underwent a stress test to measure his VO2 max, a key attribute for any athlete. The average male score is 35-40 mL/(kg·min). World-class athletes might score in the high 60’s, low 70’s. Hooked to a series of wires and made to run on an increasingly steep treadmill, Jack clocked in at 38, the upper range of average. But in a recent post-op test, now with a normally functioning heart and lungs, Jack scored in the high 50’s. This, his dad believes, is why Jack showed no symptoms. His natural fitness masked the signs of heart trouble that someone born at a lower VO2 max would have surely displayed.

At the Ed Amaral Memorial Christmas Tournament in Hanover, Mass., Jack scored 16 points in the championship game to help the Warriors take the title over Hanover High, 67-65. He was named to the all-tournament team.

Courtesy of the Cadigan family

“You just find it hard to believe, but when you watch him out there, he’s such a fine-conditioned young man, he’s so healthy and strong, it really is incredible,” says Big Blue varsity coach, Herb Grace.

Jack’s teammates have seen his scar on display during shirts-vs.-skins scrimmages, but if you never saw it, you’d never guess the ordeal Jack has been through, says Big Blue team co-captain Matt Patry. “Just the way he plays and his attitude and never complaining about his circumstances—he just looks like a good basketball player—you would never think something that dramatic happened to him.”

Jack has a word for what happened to him. “I really believe it is a miracle how everything turned out,” he says. “I don’t know how it happened. I can’t explain it. But I’m just so thankful for being alive and being healthy and having Lourdina be healthy. It’s just amazing.”

 

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