MEDFIELD — The serendipitous sequence of “ifs” defies all likelihood. If Jack Cadigan hadn’t been a cardiologist. If he hadn’t turned up at the wrong gym for his son Jack’s basketball game. If he hadn’t run into an old friend there sitting with a Haitian doctor. If Cadigan hadn’t accepted his friend’s casual invitation to visit a medical center in Haiti. And, most important, if Cadigan hadn’t decided to check out the center’s idle EKG machine by testing it on his son.
Then Cadigan wouldn’t have discovered that young Jack’s heart was a ticking time bomb nor later learned that a teenage Haitian girl who had survived the 2010 earthquake was, without treatment, doomed to an early death.
“I truly think this is a miracle,” says the younger Cadigan, now a senior at Medfield High School and a starting guard for the Big Blue varsity. “It gives hope that miracles can happen. This was extremely life-changing and lifesaving, as well. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
Had his father remembered that Thayer Academy’s freshman team was playing away from home, there would be no talk of a miracle. But Cadigan wandered into the campus athletic facility and, rather than find his son’s game, he found Steve Bresnahan, a friend doing volunteer work in Haiti. He was watching the JV game along with Dr. Jean Kenes Eloy, director of the Saint Rock medical clinic, at a mountain village outside of Port-au-Prince.
They chatted, and Bresnahan invited Cadigan to come down for a look. “Jack said, ‘Dad, we have to do that,’ ” his father recalled. “I said, ‘OK, we’re going to Haiti.’ ”
They went in August 2012, and the younger Jack was struck by what he saw. “The conditions are just horrible,” he said. “The sanitation, the poverty. It’s incredible what can happen to a country that’s had political turmoil, economic turmoil, all sort of things that can affect them. Then you add on an earthquake . . . ”
There was no running water or electricity. The EKG machine, which Milton teenager Ron Hudson had repaired as a techie project, had been gathering dust for half a dozen years. Cadigan wanted to see if it still worked, so he hooked up the machine to a gas-powered generator and used his son as a test patient.
“The strip came out and I said, wait a second,” said Cadigan, who is assistant professor of medicine at Boston Medical Center and chief of cardiology at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital.
“He had this look on his face and it wasn’t normal, obviously,” his son recalled. “So I said, ‘Is everything all right?’ He looked at the strip and said, ‘Everything’s fine.’ ” It was an old machine, his father explained, and it was possible that the leads were reversed. But when Cadigan examined his son with a stethoscope he detected a heart murmur.
“That wasn’t good,” he said. “Had this been missed completely, Jack could have just dropped.”
Since they were scheduled for another week in Haiti, the elder Cadigan didn’t want to return immediately to the States but also didn’t want to disclose his fears to his son. “It was horrible,” he said. “I was absolutely sick but I had to put it out of my mind. I said, ‘I cannot think about this down here.’ I said, ‘use your medical judgment. He looks good. He might not be good but he’s OK until we figure out what this is.’ My biggest fear was that he had cardiomyopathy, a very weak heart. That would have been ominous. My hope was that it was something completely benign like Lyme disease, which could be cured.
“My thoughts would run a spectrum of feeling from, ‘Oh, my God!’ to ‘Maybe this is going to be better than I think.’ ’’
When they returned home, Cadigan told his wife, Debbie, what he’d discovered. “He said, ‘I think I have some bad news,’ ” she said. “ ‘Jack’s going to need surgery. There’s something wrong with him.’ Then he told Jack.”
Jack’s condition had not been picked up by routine pediatric exams. “It’s not uncommon for children to have heart murmurs that are benign,” Cadigan said.
‘It’s like the stars were aligned. There was a guardian angel looking out for him.’ --Herb Grace, Jack Cadigan’s basketball coach
His son, who had never felt any of the usual symptoms, was puzzled. “I didn’t expect anything because I obviously had been very active in sports,” he said. “Growing up I played basketball, soccer, football. So that was a huge shock. I’ve been able to do everything. I didn’t really know how it was affecting me.”
What had masked his condition was his high level for oxygen consumption, which was at the upper range of average even with a hole in his heart and leaky valves. “I wouldn’t call him an aerobic giant,” the elder Cadigan said, “but he’s aerobically gifted that way.”
The open-heart surgery, done in October 2012 by Thomas MacGillivray, a cardiac surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, took eight hours. When Jack’s mother and three older sisters came to visit him they burst into tears. “He’d always been so healthy,” Debbie said. “Seeing him so sick and so laid-up.”
His father had figured that Jack would bounce back in a couple of days. “But he looked like he was on death’s doorstep,” he said. “What we didn’t know was that he was a mild hemophiliac. He bled down to a blood count of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. He required a transfusion and then he had a transfusion reaction. He required a pacemaker for a period of time. It was bad.”
The other patients on Jack’s floor were men who could have been his grandfather. “They took him under their wing but it was really frustrating to him,” Debbie said. “He wasn’t recuperating and these old men were going out of the hospital before him.”
Later, shopping with his mother and sister Andrea, Jack told them that he had no feeling in his left leg. He’d had a small stroke. “So he had a lot of bumps in the road,” his father said.
Yet Jack was determined to return to basketball once he’d recovered. His inspiration was Jeff Green, the former Celtics forward who had had heart surgery earlier in 2012 and had just returned to the parquet. “Just that in itself was amazing to me because this is the NBA. You have to be the best of the best,” said Cadigan, who later had dinner with Green and was honored by the Celtics as a Hero Among Us. “If he’s playing at this level why couldn’t I return and play at my level? That gave me a lot of hope. It gave me something to strive for.”
His return to the game began cautiously with shootarounds with his dad in early February 2013. “I was obviously very, very nervous, especially the first time I stepped on the court because I didn’t really know what my limits were,” Jack said. “When your heart starts beating fast, especially when you’re running — things like that would be startling for me because I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know if it was safe. I didn’t know anything. But at the same time basketball was a way for me to cope with everything, to get myself back to myself. The surgery took so much away from me and basketball provided me with an outlet.”
While Cadigan missed his sophomore season, he did dress for the final game. “It was a big accomplishment for me,” he said. “I was really amped up in the layup line. I missed the first layup I took by a mile.”
‘Like a little sister’
Back in Haiti, the same EKG machine had revealed that Lourdina Chery, an orphan who had survived after being trapped in the rubble of her school amid the earthquake, had rheumatic heart disease and also needed open-heart surgery, which was unavailable on the island.
“In God’s eyes she’s just as important as I am,” Jack said. “That really struck me because it’s unfair and unjust that my family can pay to have the surgery, that they have insurance.”
“I have to do something,” he told his father. “I can’t let her die.”
Once months of extensive red tape had been cut away by American volunteers, Chery was flown to Boston. MacGillivray, the MGH surgeon who fixed Jack’s heart, was again called into service in April of 2013.
“I was in the ICU with her,” said the younger Cadigan, who showed Chery his scar before the operation. “Seeing her like that was very difficult because I knew exactly what she was going through. You just feel so beaten up, almost like you’ve been hit by a truck. I was able to tell her, I’m going to be there for you. It’s this bond that’s connecting us through the scar. She’s like a little sister now.”
Cadigan went on to play his entire junior season at Thayer then transferred to Medfield, where his new teammates knew little about his cardiological tale. “We had no idea,” said cocaptain Sean Conroy.
What they had heard was that Cadigan could put the ball in the basket. “So we expected him to be good, and obviously he didn’t disappoint,” said cocaptain Matt Patry. “He’s one of our best players. A good scorer, an overall good teammate, and a good leader, especially for being a guy who was just thrown in first year as a senior and not knowing any of us.”
Cadigan, who was named Sports Illustrated’s High School Athlete of the Month for January, stepped up his game as Medfield made a late surge to qualify for the postseason, and he was all over the court in the first-round matchup at Marlborough on Feb. 27.
“It’s like the stars were aligned,” mused Herb Grace, who has coached the Big Blue varsity for 24 years. “There was a guardian angel looking out for him. Not this time. This isn’t his time. We’re going to save this kid.”
Since Medfield lost that night, it’s likely that Cadigan’s career is over. But his family is grateful that he could return to the court at all. “I was just thinking today, no matter what happens we’re just so blessed that he can play, that he was out there and was healthy enough to play the way he did,” his mother said after the game. “It seems surreal. Even now when I think about what he went through it’s almost like it didn’t happen. But it did.”
Before he starts college in the fall (Boston College and Providence are among his options), Jack is planning another in what has become a series of visits to Haiti, where he’ll reconnect with Chery.
“Any way that I can give back and raise awareness for Haiti and heart conditions, especially in athletes,” he said. “There have been a lot of stories about kids who were playing and dropped dead. That’s something that really touched me deeply. I feel like Haiti saved my life.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.