Nick Mauriello Jr., the Hauppauge High School wrestler who spent 19 days in the hospital earlier this year fighting two potentially deadly bacterial infections, is winning the most important match of his life.
He returned to competition on the mats last month.
"We almost lost him. He was very critical. His infections were serious," Mauriello's mother, Sheila, said Friday from their Hauppauge home, where the family shared, for the first time, the details of an ordeal that began in late January. "Wrestling was the last thing on our mind when he was sick," his mother said.
Mauriello Jr., 17, was diagnosed with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a life-threatening bacterial infection, and Lemierre's syndrome, a rare inflammation of the blood vessels that doctors said was an offshoot of MRSA, which is transferred by blood-to-blood contact. The MRSA diagnosis was made quickly, but Mauriello's condition worsened while doctors were unable to diagnose what turned out to be a second disease that was rarer and possibly more dangerous.
Mauriello has learned about his battle for life only from his family and his friends. He was barely conscious during the darkest days of his hospital stay; he hasn't read the news articles, watched the newscasts or spent much time thinking about what happened to him.
"I don't remember. I don't want to remember," he said as the summer before his senior year of high school winds down. "About a week before I got out of the hospital, I started remembering things."
Eager to be back on his feet
His dad, Nick Mauriello Sr., credited Dr. Rahul Panesar with being vigilant in those clinical efforts. "He was tough-minded and he was thorough," Mauriello Sr. said. "His bedside manner was great, even with the bad news. He didn't give up. When the virus was spreading throughout his body and a sonogram and CT scan couldn't find anything, Dr. Panesar insisted on doing another scan and injecting him with dye, looking behind his jawbone. That's where they finally found the Lemierre's and began treating that, too."
Mauriello Jr. showed the same fighting spirit in the hospital that made him the No. 1-ranked wrestler in New York State going into last winter's season.
Though he doesn't recall the episodes, his parents revealed that he took himself off the ventilator and began walking around his hospital room, against doctor's orders, and on one occasion, couldn't be sedated until six nurses wrestled him back into his bed.
He does remember, however, his final day at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital.
"I had the antibiotics pump attached and they said I wasn't allowed to walk out," Mauriello Jr. said, with a tight smile. "I knew I could walk. I told them that, and I walked out of the hospital on my own."
When he got home, his spirit was willing, but his body was still weak.
"He spent a lot of time on the couch watching TV and playing Xbox," his mother said, pointing to where Mauriello Jr. spent most of his time. "That's a new couch. He spent so much time on the old one he wore it out."
Eventually, Mauriello Jr. had the strength to get back into the gym.
"I told him he'd get back to wrestling, but I really had no idea," Mauriello Sr. said.
Gaining weight, strength
Mauriello Jr. had ideas of his own. "I was being home-schooled, and I had a lot of free time. I went to the gym," he said. "I hadn't lost muscle memory and my strength started coming back, quicker than everyone thought."
His weight returned, too. He wrestled last winter at 132 pounds but dropped to 111 during his illnesses. He said he now weighs 150 pounds. He wrestled at 138 last month at the upstate Thousand Islands Dual Meets, where he won three of his five matches in the tournament, and hopes to wrestle at 132 in the high school season.
"I'm just very relieved that Nick is healthy again. Wrestling is secondary to that," Hauppauge High School varsity coach Chris Messina said. "But we'll be happy to have him back on the team."
In one Suffolk preseason poll, Mauriello is the No. 1 seed in the 132-pound weight class.
"When I got home, I just wanted to get back into physical shape," Mauriello Jr. said. "It took about three months. Then in June, I went back on the mat."
"The conditioning is tough," said Mauriello Jr., who suffered two collapsed lungs, "but the wrestling moves were there."
Bill focuses on hygieneBecause of Mauriello's fight with MRSA, Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced a bill in June that looked to regulate proper hygiene, which would help prevent MRSA in high school wrestling.
The legislation, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), would require schools to clean mats before and after tournaments and competitions and also mandate that schools holding tournaments have functioning showers. The bill is currently in the senate education committee, Zeldin said in a statement, and will be taken up again at the start of the next session in January.
Asked if he liked the possibility of being a poster boy for legislative reform in his sport, Mauriello Jr. just shook his head.
"No," he said. "I don't think about any of that. I just want to wrestle."
Beginning in late October, Mauriello Jr. will attend the Super 32 national meet in North Carolina, a showcase for college recruiters.
"I want to win a state championship in high school and I want to earn a wrestling scholarship and go away to college," he said.
No one among his family or friends doubts that will occur. "When Nick puts his mind to something, he gets it done," his father said. "We're convinced, and so are the doctors, that if he wasn't so strong and determined, and wasn't in such great shape when this all happened, he wouldn't have made it."
Added his mother, Sheila, "He got better because of who he is," Sheila said. "He's a fighter."
With Laura Albanese